One of the pitfalls of living our faith in the context of an organized religion is that it’s easy to forget what’s at the heart of that faith. Sidetracked by the system of salvation that religion offers and distracted by liturgical rubrics and pomp, we overlook our faith’s original simplicity.

One line in the Gospel (Lk 13: 1-9) reminds us of the historical Jesus’ central message: "If you do not repent, you will all perish."

Ministering as an itinerant preacher, Jesus had a "stump speech" that always revolved around repentance. We presume that in all His sermons, homilies and instructions, He demanded that people change their value systems. Only after experiencing such a turnabout could anyone start believing that God is close at hand, working effectively in our everyday lives.

Everywhere God

For Jesus, God is more than just the ultimate rewarder of good and punisher of evil. He contradicts popular theology when He tells His audiences that when bad things happen, we shouldn’t be looking for God’s punishing hand. He believes we’re to look for God in every corner of our lives.

Taking His own faith seriously, this Galilean carpenter was convinced that Yahweh was just as embedded in peoples’ lives in the year 30 as 1,200 years before that. One can’t be more "hands on" than the God appearing to Moses in the Sinai burning bush.

"I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt," Yahweh informs Moses, "and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers, so I know well what they are suffering. Therefore, I have come down to rescue them from the hands of the Egyptians and lead them out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey" (Ex 3: 1-8, 13-15).

For some inexplicable reason, those who chose Sunday’s liturgical passage omitted one small detail: Moses is the person who will carry out the rescue! Yahweh not only works in everyday lives, but also works through everyday people.

Scripture scholar Carrol Stuhlmueller always reminded his students that the bush didn’t start burning just a few minutes before Moses arrived. The Exodus author implies it had always been on fire. Moses simply was the first person to look intently enough at this most common of objects to notice God’s fire in it. None who had previously passed by the bush had detected its uniqueness.

Ironically, once Moses discovers Yahweh’s fire in the bush, he also discovers Yahweh’s fire in himself. God is embedded both in the bush and in the shepherd.

God with us

Paul reminds his Corinthian community of the implications of not discovering God’s fire among us (I Cor 10: 1-6, 10-12). He makes the point that many of our faith ancestors who followed Moses along the road to freedom never saw what he saw.

"God was not pleased with most of them," Paul writes, "for they were struck down in the desert." He contends, "These things happened as examples for us."

No matter how inspired and unswerving, leaders can never substitute their faith for the faith of the people. Real faith only happens when each person discovers God working in his or her own life.

Jesus is convinced that this process of discovery doesn’t develop at the same pace for everyone. This seems to be why, in the Gospel, He gives us the parable of the non-producing fig tree. The gardener begs, "Sir, leave it this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not...."

Though we usually zero in on the "if not," Jesus is concerned with the "it may." He knows there’s a spark of God in each person, and He believes it’s never too late to notice that part of us which has been there from the beginning of us.

(3/11/04)