Of traffic cops and nursing mothers

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Homily for the Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
(Scriptures for today's Mass)

Audio for homily

If there’s any Sunday
on which someone other than someone ordained should preach -
it’s this Sunday.

In the readings today from Malachi and Matthew,
priests and preachers are criticized and even cursed by the Lord.
In the first scripture the priests are condemned
for not taking their calling seriously, for not “laying it to heart,”
and for thereby leading others astray.

In the gospel the preachers are castigated
for not practicing what they preach
and for feeling entitled to privilege on account of their ministry.

We don’t have to look too far back in history
to see that such failings plague the ministry to this very day.

And I don’t have to look very hard
to see how the Lord’s words are a critique my own life and work.
I’ll spare you the details and myself the embarrassment
of disclosing my own failings
but you can be sure that like all priests,
I am far from being a perfect one.

Priests and preachers stand in a precarious place.

I don’t usually think of myself as some kind of spiritual traffic cop,
but I know that I stand at a difficult and critical intersection
in peoples’ lives.

A priest stands at the intersection
of the grace of gospel and the grit and grind of daily life:
- where the Lord’s way and our ways either merge or diverge;
- where pleasure yields to conscience or crashes in fantasy;
- where business follows ethics’ map or is lost in greed;
- where science is cautioned
to give human dignity the right of way;
- where politics not fueled by principles cannot be licensed;
- where religion without sacrifice, like a car with four flat tires,
is a vehicle going nowhere.*

A priest stands:
- at the intersection of God’s word and the latest fad;
- at the corner of sacrifice and entitlement;
- at the crossroads of comfort and sacrifice.
And there he is expected to give signals and directions
to people making some of the most difficult, personal choices of life,
choices that have long-lasting, even eternal consequences.

That’s where a priest stands.

And at the same time, writes St. Paul to us today,
a priest, a preacher, should be among his people,
“as gentle as a nursing mother, caring for her children…
sharing, with affection, not only the gospel
but his very self as well...”

Such a powerful image here, especially when you consider the intimacy
of how a nursing mother gives her very self to her children…

So perhaps the priest is to be a kind of spiritual traffic cop
and a nursing mother at the same time.
Try to imagine a nursing mother directing traffic!
Try to imagine directing traffic with a child at your breast!
The priest, the preacher needs to be both.

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I don’t say any of this to excuse my own failings
or those of my brother priests and our bishops -
much less to solicit any sympathy because I have a hard job.
I love my work!
But the temptations to shrink from or shirk the responsibilities
of such a ministry are real.
Real, too, is the possibility of becoming
either the traffic cop --or-- the nursing mother,
rather than allowing both aspects of ministry to meld into one.

I offer all of this because in so many ways it applies to all of us.
Each of us is called to follow the road the Lord maps out for us
and to respect the rules of the road he gives us --
even and especially when passing through
the most difficult of life’s intersections.

We’re expected, all of us, to “ask for directions”
even before we get lost -- and to follow them.

In fact, we’re called to become so familiar with the Lord’s road rules
that when we do get lost
we’ll have a good sense of direction,
good enough to help us know
which path to take… which way to go.

And because we don’t travel the Lord’s road alone,
we have to avoid “spiritual road rage.”
Each of us is called to be with others
as gentle and affectionate as a nursing mother,
not only giving each other admonition and advice,
but giving of ourselves, as well.

As we gather at the Lord’s Table today, I ask you to pray for priests
that they might be always more and more faithful to the Lord:
strong in giving good direction
and gentle in loving those who seek and need it.

And let us pray for one another...

On the Cross, the Lord’s sacrifice made smooth our path
and gave us a way home.

At this table, like a nursing mother, he feeds us from his own breast,
with his Body and Blood, to give us strength to walk in his footsteps.

Show us the way home, Lord, direct us
and gently lead us all as we make our way with you…

*categories adapted from Ghandi's Seven Deadly Sins


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1 comment:

  1. This may appear twice- having problems with combox.
    Thanks Austin- you have some very powerful imagery and heartfelt thoughts here and much for us all to reflect on.
    I often think of the symbol of the pelican when I think of priests ministry- I believe it is an old one and is associated with the self sacrifice to the point of the mother providing blood by wounding her own breast when no food is available. It;s also the symbol of the Irish blood transfusion service which is appropriate to the church in these times.
    Thanks and blessings


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