Saturday, September 01, 2012

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Of Rail Claws and Collector Shoes

Readings: Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-8; Psalm 14:2-5; James 1:17-18,21-22,27; Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23

Sisters and brothers, do you still remember the major MRT breakdowns last December? Were any of you affected? I was quite surprised by them. Weren’t you? I mean, one minute everything was going fine. The stations looked so modern and attractive–filled with many shops and eating places. The trains looked so clean and cool and comfortable. Sure, there were big crowds during peak hours. But everything else seemed to be running smoothly. Then, suddenly, all hell breaks loose. Massive delays. Schedules disrupted. People trapped. Windows smashed. Time wasted. Tempers rising to the roof. How did it happen? What was the problem? How did things suddenly go so wrong, when they had all seemed to be going so right?

As you know, the Committee of Inquiry released its findings in July. According to the report, the breakdowns could have been prevented, if only SMRT had maintained the train system better. But how? As we said earlier, everything seemed to be going fine. How did SMRT fail? The experts used very technical words to explain what went wrong. Words like current collector shoes and support brackets and rail claws. I’m not an engineer. So I don’t pretend to understand all the technical details. But from my simple layperson’s perspective, SMRT overlooked one crucially important thing. All those parts that I just mentioned–the collector shoes, the support brackets, and the rail claws–have one critically important function. They keep the train connected to the third rail on the tracks. The third rail, as you know, is the one that is electrified. It carries the power that runs the train. So how did SMRT fail? It did not do enough to maintain the connection between its trains and their power source.

Maintaining the connections with your power source. This is crucially important. After all, an MRT system is meant to move people from one place to another. So what’s the use of having ultramodern stations, with shops selling all sorts of wonderful things, if the trains themselves don’t run? If they’re not properly connected to the power source?

I bring this up, sisters and brothers, because what is true of the MRT is true also of the spiritual life. Like the MRT, the spiritual life is meant to move people in some way. It’s meant to bring people closer to God. To help them recognise God in their lives. To give them the strength to do what God requires. To empower them to live as God commands. And, like the MRT, in the spiritual life too, it’s possible to be so focused only on the superficial things that we neglect the more important ones. It’s possible to even be very busy with apparently pious and holy activities–to be involved in many different church ministries and groups, for example–but forget to maintain our deeper connections with our Power Source. As a result, we may get surprised by sudden breakdowns.

Isn’t this what is happening in the gospel today? The scribes and Pharisees pride themselves in maintaining their spiritual lives in tip top condition. They take great care to observe every tiny detail of the Law. It’s as though their train station is always neat and tidy. Always spic and span. No eating or drinking. No chewing gum. No durians. Everything is running smoothly. And then, very suddenly, all hell breaks loose. Jesus shows up. He is the Word made flesh. The splendour of God the Father. In Jesus, God has come close to us. In Him, God has become a human being. But the scribes and Pharisees fail to move towards Jesus. They don’t even recognise him? Not only that, they actually take offence at what he says and does. And, in rejecting Jesus, they reject God. They refuse to move closer to God. Their train has stopped. It has suffered a major breakdown.

But how did this happen? In the first reading, Moses tells the people that if they keep the Law of God, they will stand out among all the nations for their closeness to God. What great nation is there, Moses tells them, that has its gods so near as the Lord our God is to us whenever we call to him? According to Moses, if you want to be close to God, you only have to keep the Law. But what about the scribes and Pharisees? They keep the Law, don’t they? How do they fall short?

The answer is not difficult to find. The failure of the scribes and the Pharisees is very similar to that of SMRT. Like SMRT, the scribes and Pharisees focus only on the superficial things. They obsess over the washing of cups and pots, of arms and hands. They worry about the less important external things. But they neglect to maintain their interior connection with God, within their own hearts. So Jesus rightly applies to them the words spoken by the prophet Isaiah: This people honours me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me. What the scribes and Pharisees fail to understand is that the Law is not just inscribed on some stone tablets located high up on a mountain somewhere. It is not just to be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, for example. The Law is, above all, engraved on our hearts (cf. Jeremiah 31:33). To truly keep the Law, we must pay close attention to this interior connection with God, the Source of our power.

Of course, this does not mean that we can forget all about external actions. Jesus is NOT saying that we don’t have to come for Mass on Sundays, for example. Or to go to confession regularly. Or to do our best to stay away from sin. Or to be kind to those who need our help. As St. James reminds us in the second reading: Pure, unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God our Father is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows when they need it, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world. Clearly, external actions are important. But, the second reading also tells us that, in order to perform such actions well, we need first to accept and submit to the word which has been planted in us and can save our souls. We need to maintain the train system of our spiritual life. The collector shoes, and support brackets and rail claws. We need to somehow remain connected to God, the Source of our Power.

All of which brings me to the reason why I am here today, sisters and brothers. I am a Jesuit priest from the Church of St. Ignatius. And I come here today, with some friends who are members of a group called Sojourners’ Companions. What do we do? Well, we try our best to help people–and ourselves–to do what the scribes and the Pharisees fail to do in the gospel. And what SMRT failed to do with the train system. We try to help people to maintain their connections with the Power Source. And we do this by sharing a very simple way of praying. A way that many have found highly effective. And I am one of them. Through this way of praying, I learn how to get connected with God in my heart. To bring to God whatever is troubling me, as well as whatever is making me happy. To learn to recognise God in the different events and people that I may encounter everyday.  Through this way of praying, I allow God to touch me, to move me, and to give me the strength that I need to live a better, more Christ-like life. If you want to find out more, my friends and I will be happy to have a chat with you after Mass.

Sisters and brothers, the MRT breakdowns could have been prevented if the train system had been better maintained. Don’t you want to prevent similar breakdowns in your spiritual life? How well are you maintaining your connection with God, our Power Source, today?

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