One Day at A Time
First Baptist Church Laurens
Thornton Wilder’s 1927 novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey opens with this sentence: “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” As the novel continues, Wilder goes on to inform us that another figure was about to get on that same bridge at the very moment it collapsed. He was a Catholic Monk by the name of Brother Juniper. The novel, thus, becomes Brother Juniper’s quest to solve the riddle of why these five figures had their lives end so unexpectedly and tragically. By learning their story, Brother Juniper hopes to be able to make a logical connection between their past actions and horrific way that they died. (Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Harper Collins, 1955, page 3)
In essence, Brother Juniper makes the tragic mistake the we often make. Rather than allowing the recent past to give him insights for how to live now, he instead continues to live in the past while simply treading water in the present.
That is the lesson of the three stories that Jesus offers back to back to back to begin Luke 13. Like San Luis Rey, they are all tragedies too. The first story is of a group of Galileans, killed by Pilate in the midst of offering religious sacrifices. The second is the tale of eighteen individuals who die in Jerusalem when a tower collapses. And, the final story, is about a fig tree, which after three years has still not produced any fruit.
The temptation that all three stories offer is the human inclination to ask “why”. Why did Pilate kill a group of innocent people offering sacrifices? Why did eighteen people die in the collapse of a tower? And, why after so much care and love did a fig tree planted in the fertile soil of a garden fail to produce fruit?
The question is natural, common, human. But, so often, it isn’t very helpful. As long as we are trying to solve riddles from the past, we tread water in the present, which is to say that we stay right where we are while accomplishing little if anything in the day that is before us.
While all three of Jesus’ stories were sad tales, it must be said as well that we can just as easily get caught in the past while reliving good moments and grand accomplishments too. A life full of remembering the glory days is equally as dangerous as a life spent trying to sort through or figure out the tragedies. Again, both, keep us from the present.
At the end of all three stories, Jesus offers the same basic statement. After the story Pilate’s bloody act and the tale of the collapse of the tower Jesus says, “repent”. And, after the story of the fig tree, Jesus calls his followers to “bear fruit”. On the one hand this may seem a little heartless but actually it is Jesus being very, very helpful.
The suggestion of Jesus is simple. Rather than allowing our past – good or bad – to keep us immobile in the present while we try to either sort things out or relive past glory – we must allow the past to be our teacher. If the past is tragic, then we had better learn the lessons about the brevity of life, the importance of getting our lives in order, the need to repent or how to do better next time. If our past is glorious, then our goal shouldn’t be to continue to live there but rather to find a way to make the present equally so if not even more significant. Rather than becoming a prison from which we cannot escape, our past must become our best teacher for how to live more fully in the present.
The song One Day at A Time has been recorded by over 200 musical artists. Everybody from Merle Haggard to Bill Gaither has offered their own rendition but Christy Lane’s version of the song from back in 1980 may be the most famous. The lyrics of that well-worn tune include this line, “yesterday’s gone sweet Jesus, and tomorrow may never be mine. Lord help me today, show me the way, one day at a time.”
Yesterday is over. Good or bad, we will never untangle all of its mysteries. But, we can learn from it, be shaped by it and grow from our past as we seek to live this day, today, right now. For as the song says and as Jesus points out with each of his three stories, time is short, tomorrow may never be ours. What we have is today and we must make something of it – we must be fruitful, we must learn from our past.
You may have heard the story of the two friends who were sitting together watching the six o’clock news one night which was featuring the story of a man threatening to jump off a bridge. One said to the other, “I’ll bet you a hundred bucks he jumps!” “Its a bet,” said his buddy. As they continued to watch, sure enough, not more than two minutes later the man jumped from the bridge. As the looser handed over the money, his winning pal admitted, “well, I hate to say it, but I knew he was going to do it. I saw him jump just an hour before on the 5 o’clock news.” “Well, don’t feel too bad,” his friend consoled him. “I saw him jump at 5 too, but, I didn’t think he would be dumb enough to do it again!” (From Reader’s Digest, June 1994, page 72)
The point – of course – let our past be our friend, our teacher, our instructor for a better today.
This days offers us a reminder of our past as our friend, our teacher too. For, this meal is a reminder of what God has done for us through Christ – not so that we will get caught up in its mystery and complexity, but, so that we can allow it to influence what we will do today, now, even before the sun sets. Amen.