Comfort the Afflicted!

BishopOdoTrimmedHomily at St Philip Evans, on the 3rd Sunday of Lent, Year C.

Do you show mercy in your daily life?

If we want to be merciful, like the Father, we must offer mercy.

If we want to make a good confession this Lent, we must face up to where we’ve failed.

Over these few weeks, we are considering the spiritual works of mercy. Today, I invite you to ask: have I comforted the afflicted?

Right now, some of your friends or family members are in distress. Our world is full of circumstances beyond our control. Disability, cancer, broken families, unemployment, depression – and depending on where your extended family lives, floods in Yorkshire, typhoons in the Philippines, or violence in the Middle East. On the principle of “do unto others what you wish others would do unto you”, it’s rather important to make use of some of your most precious asset – time – to send a bunch of flowers, make a phone call, or pop round for a cup of tea.

To “comfort” literally means to make “with-strength”. It doesn’t always mean a consoling arm round the shoulder. In the Bayeux Tapestry, one panel is labelled: “Bishop Odo comforts his men” (HIC ODO EP[ISCOPU]S BACULU[M] TENENS CONFORTAT PUEROS). The accompanying picture shows a bishop, wielding a club, warning some of his young soldiers not to flee from the battle! In the same way, we must sometimes “comfort the afflicted” by encouraging them to keep on going. God is not the author of their disasters, but the one who offers to walk with them through the valley of the shadow of death.

To comfort the afflicted, we must help them to see God is part of the solution, not part of the problem. When things go wrong in our lives, it’s natural for us to look for someone to blame. Who is the easiest target? The Almighty! If God has the power to work miracles and is supposed to love me without limit, then it must be His fault that things have gone wrong.

This isn’t an easy criticism to respond to. So I want to share with you today, an important spiritual secret, one I have learned from the school of life. If you don’t remember anything else from any other sermon you hear this year, remember the next two words I am about to share with you – a truly profound spiritual message.

Ready?

Stuff happens.

There have always been diseases and natural disasters. And there always will be diseases and disasters until Christ comes again. Now I don’t want – not for one single moment – to deny the power of prayer. We don’t know how many natural disasters and terrible illnesses have been prevented or reversed because of the prayers of God’s people. But there’s no point in believing in a God who ALWAYS stops these things, because that God doesn’t exist. The only God which Jesus is willing to offer us is the God who exists alongside a world of pain and suffering – the God who saw the suffering of the Hebrew slaves, but waited until the right time to liberate them from Egypt.

Being Christians, or even churchgoers, doesn’t grant us immunity from disaster. A story often attributed to St Teresa of Avila tells of the day when her saddle broke, causing her to fall off her donkey and into a stream. Being a woman of prayer, she complained to the Almighty. God said to her: “This is how I treat all my friends.” Teresa answered, “And that’s why you have so few of them!”

Today’s Gospel shows us the one time Our Lord was confronted with this problem directly. People come to him with reports of two disasters – a collapsed tower and a massacre conducted by occupying troops. He doesn’t use these words but you can almost hear him thinking it – stuff happens. Jesus didn’t prevent a massacre or an industrial accident even when he was living his human life in Galilee. Nor can we expect him to provide a guaranteed intervention service today. Rather, he walked among his people offering forgiveness of sin, healing diseases – and carrying the consoling news that when bad stuff happens, it is not punishment for our sins or for anyone else’s.

His other words are less consoling. “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Is Our Lord threatening us with a collapsing roof or homicidal security forces? I don’t think so. Rather, he asks us to have an eternal perspective. We’re offered eternal happiness in a heaven free of all sickness or disaster. But to be sure of entering heaven, we must turn aside from worldly values and follow Jesus – this is the meaning of “repent”. In God’s eyes, bodily sickness and death is not the worst possible disaster. Failing to enter heaven – that’s the true tragedy.

I wrote this homily before we heard news, on Monday, that a collapsing building in Didcot had injured 4 workers, killed one, and left 3 still missing. It’s not so easy to say “stuff happens” when we’re conscious of families whose grief is current. But this is the stunning thing about how Our Lord reacted – not with words of consolation, but a challenge to live Godly lives.

What, then, should we say to a friend raging at God because of the difficulties in their life? Perhaps you can ask what they really expect God to do about it. If the cause of grief is death, gently ask whether it isn’t true that Jesus came to offer eternal life beyond death? If the source of grief is illness, have they asked for the Sacrament of the Sick? And if their problems seem self-inflicted, sensitively but surely we must offer the only comfort the Lord offered in the face of tragedy – “Repent!”

Do you show mercy in your daily life?

Today, I invite you to ask: have I comforted the afflicted?

If not, make a good confession – and then begin!