March 20, 2022

"One Day More"

Rev. Scott Landis

Luke 13:1-9 & Isaiah 55: 1-9

One of my favorite musicals in MY lifetime is Les Misérables. Set in early 19th-century France, Les Miz is the story of Jean Valjean, a French peasant, and his desire for redemption, having been released in 1815 after serving nineteen years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister's starving child. Valjean decided to break his parole and start his life anew after a bishop inspired him with a tremendous act of mercy, but a police inspector named Javert refused to let him escape justice and pursues him for most of the play. Along the way, Valjean and a slew of characters are swept into a revolutionary period in France, where a group of young idealists attempt to overthrow the government at a street barricade in Paris. While their attempts to demand justice for the poor are noble, many lives were lost in their “David vs. Goliath” efforts.

There are many “mini climaxes” in the play always accented, of course, by a rousing musical number. One of the most inspiring, “One Day More,” invites the viewer to glimpse a variety of very different perspectives on the emerging revolution as characters decide whether or how they might participate.

The movie version depicts this powerfully as the camera switches repeatedly from Marius to Javert, and from Cosette to Valjean (among several others) each of whom approach the barricade with from very different angles – AND each one harboring very different hopes and expectations. As they sing, “One Day More” the viewer is unconsciously invited to walk in the shoes of each character and wonder how WE might respond. With whom do WE identify? Where do we see ourselves at this point in the unfolding drama? [Pause]

My focus on this popular musical may give you a tiny insight into the way my mind works, (which , I admit, can be a little esoteric at times) but it is what came to me as I read this passage from Luke. Not so much regarding the theological issues raised in the dialogue between Jesus and the Galileans as they expressed their frustration over the death of their fellow-Galileans. But through the parable that Jesus used to illustrate the way of God.

As he tells the story, we as contemporary listeners are also unconsciously invited to step into the scene as we may identify with any one of the characters or inanimate objects described. [Pause]

There is a parallel between what Jesus was trying to teach, that is, the circumstances surrounding the fate of the Galileans, and the fig tree, which is given ONE MORE CHANCE to produce, but I am drawn to the varying perspectives on the situation. Just like the characters in Les Miz – each facet of the parable offers a different understanding whether you are viewing the situation from the standpoint of the owner, the gardener, the fig tree, or even the manure. Think about it. And ask yourself – where are you in this scene? [Pause]

The owner was frustrated with the tree that was just taking up space in his garden. Since it was no longer productive, he wanted to cut it down, allowing room for a new tree that would produce figs either for his own use or perhaps to sell. After all, it had been producing nothing for three years – wasn’t that enough time to determine its worth?

The gardener takes sympathy on the apparent useless tree and requests one more chance. Not “One Day More,” but, “Sir, let it alone for one more YEAR. I’ll dig around it and put a little manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good. If not, well, maybe then cut it down.”

The parable offers no conclusion. The story ends without resolution. But it begs the question: who or what does the fig tree represent and who the manure (I’ll leave that one to your imagination). [Pause]

It has been said that this parable is about the grace of God. And it is true that God will give us a second chance (and even more) AND the fertilizer needed to affect the possibility of becoming useful by producing “fruit.” Indeed, there are other scriptures that speak to this. For example, Paul tells the Corinthians about how we are to bear the “Fruit of the Spirit.” Even Jesus states how we will only bear fruit if we “abide in the vine” which, I imagine as his love and grace.”

But what if we don’t bear fruit? What if we are no longer productive – even after we have been given adequate fertilizer – that is nurture, love, medication, therapy? What if we have been given “One Day More” or “One Year More” or even longer and we still don’t seem to be of any use to anyone? [Pause]

It’s a concern I often hear expressed in a question I have been asked frequently in my ministry, “Pastor, why am I still alive? I’m of no use to anyone. I can’t do anything. I can’t contribute anymore. I feel like I am much more of a burden and I’m just taking up space.

My, if the fig tree could speak. I wonder if it would ask something similar. Or – are we hearing its voice every day? Are they questions you have asked (or thought) as well? [Pause]

In a previous church I used to visit Helen in a nursing home. Helen was one of my senior members – we would call her kupuna here. In the last few years of Helen’s life, she could no longer get out of bed. Crippling arthritis made it impossible for Helen to walk. Her hands were so deformed she could no long feed herself or attend to any of her personal care. Helen had no living relatives and only a few dedicated church friends visited her regularly. Everything had to be done for her which made her very sad and prompted that haunting question each time I visited, “Pastor, why am I still alive?” [Pause]

It's a challenge to know how to respond, but I wonder if this parable doesn’t offer an interesting perspective – opening our eyes to a central truth of our existence. And perhaps it is the reason why there is no resolve in the story itself.

Somewhere along the way most of us have bought into the idea that unless we are producing something, we are of no earthly good. Our value, or worth, given that understanding, is measured against what we contribute to others. Even the gardener in the parable seemed to have adopted that notion. But what if the fertilizer did nothing and all that was left was a non-producing fig tree? Is that grounds for removal?

You see, what I had to reassure Helen of was the fact that her worth in God’s eyes had nothing to do with whether or not she could feed herself. Mind you, I had to do this without discounting her feelings of frustration. But her worth was not dependent upon what she could do or whether she could produce anything. Her worth was in simply being a child of God. She was, indeed “beautifully and wonderfully made” as the Psalmist describes we human beings.

I am convinced, our role as “human beings” is simply to be grateful for our “being” itself. What we “do” or what we contribute to others is the icing on the cake. This doesn’t mean that our goal is to be a sloth and do nothing to be of service to others and the common good. Rather, it is to remember and remind ourselves each day that we are a blessing to the world simply because you are a child of God.

We are rated throughout our lives in so many ways – gifted and talented as opposed to average, college-bound as opposed to trade school oriented, handsome or good-looking as opposed to homely. Our worth is often determined by the size of our bank account. And we, too often, buy into it all.

Re-read these words of Jesus. They help us with an important reality that our worth is not dependent upon what we do - but centers in who we are. I believe the parable is unresolved because it is up to us to understand and accept that gift.

God claims us in baptism and reminds us “red, brown, yellow, black, and white – we ARE PRECIOUS in God’s sight. Male or female, gay or straight, athlete or clutz, rich or poor, productive or not – God is always there with “One Day More” to receive me and love me “just as I am without one plea.”

Thanks be to God. Amen

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