Sunday, September 30, 2012

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Healing the Hoarder

Sisters and brothers, about a month or so ago, a 76-year-old man was found dead in the man’s own HDB flat. It was, of course, not the first time this had happened. What made this particular case more newsworthy was the fact that the man’s house was packed, from floor to ceiling, with rubbish. To the extent that an emergency services team had to take almost an hour to break into the tightly locked apartment, plough through the junk, and retrieve the deceased person’s remains. The poor man was a hoarder. While alive, he spent his time rummaging through trash cans and storing what he found in plastic bags in his house. When a neighbour asked him what was in those bags, he was reported to have said that he had treasures. We can only guess at the reasons why the man acted the way he did. Some say he may have had a mental illness. A form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Whatever the cause, the effects of his condition were quite plain to see. He couldn’t stop himself from hoarding. Not even when his apartment began to smell really bad. Not even when it posed a serious fire hazard, endangering the lives of both him and his neighbours.

Now it’s not always a bad idea to store things. Especially if they are truly valuable. We may think, for example, of how water is such a precious commodity in Singapore. Such that we have to go to great lengths to construct reservoirs to store it. And to maintain armies to defend it. But not everything is as valuable as water. And not all valuable things are meant to be stored and secured in this way.

For example, all of us will agree that fire too is a valuable thing. We need it to cook our food. To light up the darkness. To dispel the cold. And yet, how many of us actually store and secure fire the way we do  water? We don’t. And part of the reason why we don’t is because of the danger involved. When we try to store fire, we run the risk of being burnt by it. Even though fire is almost as precious as water, it is not meant to be stored and secured. It’s meant to be spread and shared.

All of which helps us to better appreciate the sad situation of our HDB hoarder. For some reason, he could not even tell the difference between true treasure and junk, let alone the difference between water and fire. As a result, the poor man died surrounded by piles of rubbish.

And it’s a similar plight that our Mass readings are trying to help us to avoid today. For hoarding is a serious problem–even a dangerous illness–in the spiritual life as well. In the second reading, for example, we find a stern warning being issued to certain rich people. People who treat their wealth like a treasure to be accumulated and safeguarded. People who, in their arrogance and complacency, pay no attention to the many others around them who are struggling to survive. The many who have no choice but to live from hand to mouth. The countless who are unable to save up for a rainy day, because everyday is a rainy day. Instead of using their resources to help these poor neighbours–and so store up true spiritual treasures for themselves–the rich people in the second reading actually add to their misery. They make the poor do backbreaking work in exchange for wages too small to sustain life. And the rich do this–they neglect and victimise the poor–in order to store up and secure their own wealth.

But what these apparently well-off people fail to realise is that they themselves are actually spiritually sick. Like the old man in his HDB apartment, they are hoarders. They cling compulsively to things that have no spiritual value in themselves. And their lives become a fire-hazard. As the reading warns them: It was a burning fire that you stored up as your treasure for the last days. And, if they do not change, this fire will destroy them.

But that’s not all. The illness of hoarding affects not just those who are materially rich. It endangers also those of us who are spiritually wealthy. Isn’t this what is happening in both the first reading and the gospel? In the first reading, seventy elders of the people of Israel are summoned to the Tent of Meeting. The place where God speaks to Moses. There, in the Tent, they receive a great blessing. They are given a share in the same spirit that God gave to Moses. As a result, they too are able to prophesy, to speak on God’s behalf. But something unexpected happens. It seems that, as the spirit of God is poured out on those in the Tent, it also overflows onto others who are outside. So, even though they were not in the Tent, Eldad and Medad also begin to prophesy. And Joshua protests. He wants Moses to stop them. He wishes to hoard the gift of the spirit. To keep this treasure solely within the confines of the Tent of Meeting.

Similarly, in the gospel, the disciples of Jesus want to stop someone from casting out devils in the Lord’s name, simply because the man is not one of them. Like the seventy elders in the first reading, the disciples have been given a share in the spirit of God. The precious spirit that empowers the ministry of Jesus. And they want to keep this treasure for themselves. They want to hoard it. To restrict its operation to the members of their group.

What Joshua and the disciples of Jesus fail to understand is that, although the spirit of God is truly a precious gift, a priceless treasure, it is more like fire than like water. The spirit is meant not to be stored and secured, but to be shared and spread. To try to hoard it is to act against the wishes of God, who desires everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). And it is when we realise this that we are better able to understand what Jesus may mean when he tells us to tear out our eye, or to chop off our hand, if these should cause us to sin.

Perhaps we are being asked, you and I, to get rid of the blind eye that doesn’t know how to tell the difference between water and fire. Or even between true treasure and mere junk. To stop seeing through the greedy eye that wants to keep all things of value only for itself. Perhaps we’re being asked to stop using the grasping hand, that can’t stop grabbing and hoarding, without giving any thought to the needs of others, or to the wishes of God. And it is by taking these drastic measures that we allow God to heal us of our affliction. To help us to get over our hoarding. Otherwise, as Jesus warns us, the precious fire that we try so desperately to store up for ourselves might well turn into the terrible flames of hell, which burn and burn and never go out.

Sisters and brothers, it is difficult for us to deny that all of us gathered here today are indeed blessed. Some of us–maybe even many of us–are blessed with great material wealth. But, whether materially rich or not, all of us here are spiritually gifted. Apart from the catechumens among us, we have all been baptised and washed in the blood of the Lamb of God. But this blessing is meant not just for us. It is also destined for others. This treasure is not for us simply to store and to secure. Rather, it is a burning fire that is meant to be spread and shared. So that others too may come to the knowledge of the truth.

Sisters and brothers, what can we do to allow God to heal us of our hoarding tendencies today?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Beware the Rip Currents!

Readings: Wisdom 2:12,17-20; Psalm 53:3-6,8; James 3:16-4:3; Mark 9:30-37

Sisters and brothers, do you like the beach? It can be very relaxing to sit by the sea, on a cool breezy day, and watch the waves breaking on the sand. Or even to take a dip in the saltwater, and let yourself be carried along by it. But, although beaches can be relaxing, you do have to be careful too. Depending on where you are, a beach can also be very dangerous. Some foreign beaches, for example, are notorious for rip currents. You know, of course, what a rip current is. Although most of the seawater at a beach moves inwards, towards the safety of the shore, a rip current moves in the opposite direction. Away from the beach. Once caught in such a current, an unsuspecting swimmer can very easily be dragged out into deep water and drown.

What makes rip currents so dangerous is the fact that they’re not easy to spot. Not unless you know what to look out for. You may see only the cool inviting waters glistening in the sun, and you immediately dash in, thinking that all the waves are moving in the same direction. That they will all carry you back to the safety of the shore. But, once in the water, before you know what’s happening, you find yourself being swept away to your destruction. Hence the importance of having warning signs on the beach. Or trained lifeguards. Something or someone to help bring the hidden danger out into the open. To point out the rip currents, so that people can take the necessary precautions, and avoid being buried in a watery grave.

There is, of course, no mention of the beach in our Mass readings today. Let alone rip currents. But, if we look closely, we will find an important warning. Today, a hidden danger is being brought to our attention. Consider what is happening in the gospel. Jesus and his disciples are on a journey. And we know the direction in which they are travelling. Jesus makes no secret about it. Today, for the second time in Mark’s gospel, the Lord tells his disciples about his destination. The Son of Man will be delivered into the hands of men, he says. They will put him to death; and three days after he has been put to death he will rise again. Jesus is travelling toward the Cross. But, even though he will soon have to suffer and die, he is moving also in the direction of the Resurrection. The direction of spiritual safety. He is actually leading his disciples onto the shores of new life in the Kingdom of God. He is teaching them what love looks like. He is showing them that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13).

But not all the waves in the gospel are moving in that same direction. There is also a rip current going the other way. Moving in a direction, not of safety and life, but of danger and death. And this current is made all the more dangerous because it is hidden. At least at first. Initially, the disciples appear to be travelling in the same direction as Jesus. Geographically, they are moving along with him from the mountain of Transfiguration, through Galilee, to Capernaum. But, spiritually, they are actually going in the opposite direction. For we’re told that, along the way, the disciples have been arguing which of them was the greatest. Jesus, their Lord and Master, is steadily moving in the direction of loving self-sacrifice. They, in contrast, remain focused on anxious self-advancement.

And the second reading tells us exactly where these two different roads lead. We’re told that, on the one hand, the wisdom that comes down from above makes for peace, and is kindly and considerate. But, on the other hand, wherever you find jealousy and ambition, you find disharmony, and wicked things of every kind being done. The wisdom that comes down from heaven is, of course, none other than Jesus himself. His way, the way of the Cross, the way of self-sacrificing love, leads to harmony and peace. In contrast, the way of the disciples, the way of ambition, and of concern for self-advancement, leads instead to violence and conflict. As the second reading points out: You have an ambition that you cannot satisfy; so you fight to get your way by force. This then is the dangerous rip current in which the disciples find themselves caught.

And this current is all the more dangerous for being hidden. The disciples think that they are following Jesus on the road. But they are actually being pulled in the opposite direction. And we see something similar in the first reading too. Here godless people are ruthlessly planning to torture and murder a just person. But they don’t seem to realise that their plans are evil. On the contrary, they use God to justify their actions. If the virtuous man is God’s son, they say, God will take his part and rescue him from the clutches of his enemies. Even though the godless are being swept away by the rip current of their own evil ambition and selfishness. Even though they are moving in the direction of violence and conflict, of danger and death. They remain blind to their situation. They even fool themselves into thinking that what they do is what God wants.

And, if we’re honest with ourselves, perhaps we will recognise that what is said of the godless could also be said of us as well. For isn’t it true that we too are capable of fighting to further our own ambitions, even while we may claim to be working for the best interests of others? Isn’t it all too easy, for example, for parents to tell themselves that they’re pushing their children, often to the point of exhaustion, only for the children’s own good? When, in fact, the parents are anxious for their children to succeed, also because failure will make the parents lose face in front of their friends? Isn’t it true too, that it is all too easy for a priest and religious like me to tell myself that I’m working myself to the point of burnout all for the sake of building God’s kingdom, when it is actually my own career I’m carefully constructing? My own ego I’m steadily inflating? Sisters and brothers, like rip currents, ambition and the desire for self-advancement are made all the more dangerous because they can so easily be hidden among apparently noble intentions.

Thankfully, like a well-placed sign on a beach, or an alert and conscientious lifeguard, Jesus knows just what to do to bring the hidden danger to light. In the gospel, he does this by asking the disciples a crucially important question: What were you arguing about on the road? What are the things that are occupying your mind and heart? The concerns that sap your energy? The issues that upset you? Make you anxious? Rob you of your peace of mind? Are your concerns truly related to the interests of God and of others? Or do they revolve mainly around you and yours? Are you truly focused on self-donation, on self-sacrifice? Or is there not more than a little desire for self-advancement? Are you being carried into the safety and peace of God’s Kingdom? Or are you instead allowing yourself to be swept away into the deadly depths of violence and conflict? Difficult questions. But important for bringing the hidden danger out into the open. What's more, to help the disciples to answer more honestly, to help them face the truth, Jesus sets a child before them. The better to prompt them to examine themselves: How willing am I to welcome someone like this child? Someone without any standing in society. Someone powerless. Someone who possesses nothing that can benefit me. How willing am I to care for such a person?

And what about us, sisters and brothers? On the road of life, what do we constantly argue about? This is the question that Jesus is posing to us as well. And he does this not to put us on a guilt trip. Not to make us feel bad. But to save us from drowning in the treacherous waters of our own anxious ambition.

Sisters and brothers, are there any dangerous rip currents you need to beware of today?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Breaking Up with Mr. Know-It-All

Readings: Isaiah 50:5-9; Psalm 114:1-6,8-9; James 2:14-18; Mark 8:27-35

Mr. Know It All
Well you think you know it all
But you don't know a thing at all
Yeah baby, you don't know a thing about me
You don’t know a thing about me

Sisters and brothers, I think at least some of you will recognise these words. They are the closing lines from a song performed by Kelly Clarkson. The song is entitled Mr. Know It All. And it’s sung by a girl who feels taken for granted by her boyfriend. Some guy who acts as though he knows everything about her, when he actually doesn’t. Some idiot who tries to control her, to put her down, and even to lie to her. A creep who seems to think that she will always stay with him no matter how badly he treats her. Well, the girl won’t stand for it it any longer. She comes to a decision that’s expressed in the song’s chorus.

Oh you think that you know me, know me
That's why I'm leaving you lonely, lonely
'Cause baby, you don't know a thing about me
You don't know a thing about me

As you might have guessed, sisters and brothers, this is what they call a break-up song. The girl finds the courage to stand up for herself. She packs her bags and leaves her loser of a boyfriend. Even though he claims to know it all, he doesn’t know a thing about her. So why stay and be miserable. Better to leave...

Not unlike Kelly Clarkson, our Mass readings today also sing to us of people who seem to think they know it all. In the second reading, St. James writes about someone who thinks he knows all about being a Christian. Someone who claims that he has faith. But James seriously doubts that this is true, because the person does not express his faith in good works. And, as James is eager to point out, faith without good works is quite dead. In the words of Kelly Clarkson’s song, we might say that, even though he may claim to know it all, this person doesn’t know a thing about the faith. Which is the same as saying that he doesn’t know a thing about the Lord Jesus, the object of our faith.

But, if it is true that faith without good works is dead, does it then follow that, as long as we are doing a lot of good works, we can be sure that we have a living faith? Does it mean that, if I do many good deeds–if I donate a lot of money to the poor, or if I spend a lot of time in church, or volunteer regularly at a home for the less fortunate, or if I even go on the occasional mission trip–then I know all about the faith? Know all about Jesus? Is that all there is to it? Is the faith only about performing good actions?

We begin to find an answer to our question when we consider carefully what is happening in the gospel today. You may notice, first of all, that we are now at the midpoint of Mark’s gospel. As you know, the gospel has 16 chapters. Today’s reading is taken from chapter 8, where we find an important turning point in the story. Up till now, the disciples have been following Jesus, listening to his teaching, and witnessing his miracles–his good works. Not only that, the disciples themselves have actually actively participated in the Lord’s ministry. In chapter 6, for example, Jesus had sent out the 12 apostles, who then went out to preach repentance, heal the sick, and cast out demons. In other words, like Jesus, they went about doing good works.

So we might expect them to know something about Jesus. And, as it turns out, they do. At least they know more than the rest of the people who have not shared in Jesus’ ministry. To these people, even though they may have witnessed the power of Jesus’ miracles and his preaching, Jesus is still only one of the prophets. In other words, he’s nothing special. There have been many others like him in the past. In contrast, the disciples–represented by Peter–actually recognise the uniqueness of Jesus. He’s not just the most recently arrived prophet in a long line of prophets. He is the Christ. The Anointed One. The one God has specially chosen to free God’s people. So it’s clear that the disciples have some knowledge about Jesus. But does this mean then that they know it all?

Not quite. Even though Peter and the disciples have been following Jesus for quite some time. And although they have even performed many good works in his name. Something is still lacking in their knowledge. Which is why Jesus gives them strict orders not to tell anyone about him. They still have one more crucial lesson to learn. They need to learn what it really means to be the Christ. For many were expecting a military leader. Someone who would bring victory over the Roman oppressors. It is no coincidence then that it is also precisely at this time that Jesus begins to teach them that the Son of Man was destined to suffer grievously, to be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and to be put to death, and after three days to rise again. Just when the disciples may think that they know all about him–simply because they have shared in the many good works that he has been doing–Jesus begins to teach them that they have more to learn.

What does this tell us, sisters and brothers, if not that having faith is not just about performing good deeds? More than only action, having faith is also about passion. More than just doing good things for others, having faith is also about being willing to endure the bad things that others might do to us, provided that it is the loving thing for us to do. For that is what Jesus himself did. Those moving words that we heard in the first reading could so easily be applied to the Lord: For my part, I made no resistance, neither did I turn away. I offered my back to those who struck me, my cheeks to those who tore at my beard; I did not cover my face against insult and spittle.

Which is why, when Peter tries to remonstrate with him–claiming, in effect, to know more about the Lord than the Lord himself–we might well expect Jesus to do to him, what that girl does to her boyfriend in Kelly Clarkson’s song. We might expect the Lord to pack his bags and to leave. But, thankfully, this is does not happen. On the contrary, the Lord continues to try his best to teach his disciples the lesson that they need to learn: That it is necessary for the Son of Man to suffer, and die, and then be raised. And that living faith must be expressed not just in the performance of good actions. But also, ultimately, in the endurance of the Cross.

And isn’t this difficult lesson something that we too need to keep learning? In the various difficulties and challenges that we might face everyday, Jesus continues to sing us a song of challenge and of consolation. He continues to reach out to us his hand of companionship. For, unlike Kelly Clarkson, the song that the Lord sings is not a song of break-up, but a song of eternal love. A love that will never die, because the singer has already died once and for all. He died and was raised to life again. The challenge that remains, sisters and brothers, is for us to recognise and to let go of the different ways we might continue to claim to know it all about the Lord without, at the same time, being willing to take up our Cross and to follow him.

Sisters and brothers, how might the Lord be inviting you to break up with Mr. Know-It-All today?

Saturday, September 08, 2012

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Discovering Our Disabilities

Readings: Isaiah 35:4-7; Psalm 145:6-10; James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37
Picture: cc taberandrew

Sisters and brothers, imagine just for a moment that you suddenly have to move to a foreign country for some reason. Maybe for work. Or for study. Or perhaps even to take refuge from some misfortune or disaster. This is a place that you’ve never been to before. A faraway place, of which you have no prior knowledge at all. A place where internet access is... well... not very accessible. And, in this place, everyone speaks a foreign language. A language that you neither speak nor understand. A language that you’ve never even heard spoken before. Not only that, but the whole culture is strange to you. The food is different. The music is jarring. The religious practices bizarre. How do you think you will feel? At least at first?

You will hear people speaking to one another, and even to you, but you won’t understand them. You will want to speak to people, but you won’t be able to make yourself understood. You will see people doing things that seem odd to you. You won’t understand what they mean, or why they are being done. You may want to explore your new surroundings. But you won’t know where to go. Or how to get there. Or whether it’s safe. How do you think you will feel?

To see and hear, and not be able to understand. To speak and write, and not be able to make yourself understood. To want to visit new places, and not be able to move around freely. In short, at least in the beginning, your life in this new place will be an experience of dis-ability. There will be many things you cannot do, even though you want to. Which goes to show that you don’t have to be physically blind to be unable to see. You don’t have to be physically deaf to be unable to hear. You don’t have to be physically lame to be unable to move about. You can be disabled even if there is nothing wrong with your body. Not only that. It is actually possible to be disabled and not know anything about it. After all, you already had these disabilities before you moved to the new place. Before you got there, you already did not speak the language. You already did not know the culture. You already did not know how to get around. Before you got there, you were already disabled. You just didn’t realise it yet.

It is helpful for us to keep these two insights in mind as we meditate on our Mass readings today. First, that it is possible to be disabled and not realise it. And second, that there are disabilities that go beyond the physical. For our readings today are all about how God can and wants to heal our disabilities. In the gospel, Jesus heals a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech. And, in the first reading, the prophet Isaiah tells of a time when the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unsealed. A time when the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongues of the dumb sing for joy. Sounds like really good news. But what, we may wonder, does this have to do with us? Perhaps there may be a few of us here tonight who might have some difficulty seeing or hearing, speaking or walking about. But how many of us here are actually physically blind or lame? How many of us are physically deaf or dumb? Probably not many. So what possible relevance do our readings have for us today?

We begin to find an answer to this question only when we remember that there are disabilities beyond the physical. And only when we recall that we can actually be disabled without realising it. We find a good example of this in the second reading. Here, the author criticises people who discriminate against the poor. People who treat others according to how well or how poorly they dress. Or according to how much money they have in their pockets or bank accounts. Or how large an amount they are able and willing to donate to the synagogue.

And, although the reading doesn’t state it explicitly, it is not too difficult to see that all these people who discriminate against others like that, are actually disabled in some way. Although there may be nothing wrong with their eyes, their vision is still somehow impaired. When they look at a person, they see only a potential beggar or a benefactor. They see only poverty or wealth. They don’t really see the person. They can’t. Their prejudice prevents them. What is worse, they aren’t even aware of their own disability. Which is why the reading poses them a question that is as urgent as it is heartfelt: Can’t you see...? They are asked. Can’t you see that you have used two different standards…? Can’t you see your own bias. And the answer is no. They cannot see. They cannot recognise their own blindness. They are disabled by their prejudice. And they don’t even know it.

But we shouldn’t be too harsh on these people. For perhaps we ourselves are not too different from them. Or at least I’m not. What or whom do we really see when we look at others? When we look at our colleagues or classmates, for example. Do we really see the persons that they are? Or do we see only potential stepping stones or obstacles to our own advancement? When we look at our children or spouses, our parents or siblings, what do we see? Do we really see the persons they are? Or do we see only the expectations we may have of them? Or the unwelcome demands they might make on our already limited resources of time and energy?

Sisters and brothers, if we are truly honest with ourselves, how many of us can deny that what we said of the people in the second reading is probably applicable to us as well? To you and to me? Isn’t it true that we too have disabilities beyond the physical? Isn’t it possible that we might be disabled and still not realise it?

But that’s not all. There is an even deeper form of disability to be found in our readings today. A more profound kind of blindness that the Lord wishes to heal. In the gospel, after restoring the man who was deaf and dumb, Jesus orders the witnesses to tell no one about it. Why does he do that? His aim, after all, is to proclaim the good news of the coming Kingdom of God. Won’t it help to have people spread the news of the healing far and wide? Why doesn’t Jesus want others to know? Unless, of course, the kind of kingdom he is announcing is not the kind everyone else is expecting. Unless Jesus is worried that people are unable to appreciate, unable to accept, the kind of messiah he really is. Not the kind that will defeat the Romans and establish a worldly kingdom. But rather, the kind who walks the lonely road to the Cross. And there lays down his own life as a ransom for many.

Jesus doesn’t want people to know him as messiah, because they are are still unable to understand what this means. Like those who have recently moved to a foreign land, they understand neither the culture nor the language of the kingdom of God. The culture and the language of self-sacrificing love. Indeed, we may recall, that in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is only finally recognised for who he really is when he hangs dead on the cross. It is only then that a Roman centurion is able to say of him, Truly this man was God’s Son! (Mark 15:39) Jesus wants the healing to be kept secret because the people are suffering from a disability. They are unable to recognise a suffering messiah. And what we say about the people in the gospel, we can quite easily say about ourselves as well. We too are disabled in some way. For how many of us find it easy to recognise the Lord in the crosses we carry everyday?

But it is only when we acknowledge our disabilities, that we can claim the healing that our Lord is offering us today. For he wishes to take away our prejudices. Everything that keeps us from seeing his face, hearing his voice, and dashing headlong into his loving embrace.

Sisters and brothers, how ready and willing are we to claim this healing for ourselves today?

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?