Where is God in the Pandemic?

Preacher: 
Don Alexander
Sermon Text: 

May 17, 2020

6th Sunday After Easter (A)

Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66: 7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

Where is God in the Pandemic?

I expect all of us have watched news reports that give the statistics on the Coronavirus pandemic.  This past Friday there were 4.5 million cases worldwide, with nearly 1.5 million cases in the US.  Worldwide over 300,000 people had died and 87 thousand of these were US citizens[1]. The videos of mass graves in NY city were shocking to me. A few months ago this was literally unimaginable.

COVID-19 has altered our lifestyle.  Nearly 15% of our citizens are out of work, the world economy is in shock, we’re experiencing shortages and it appears more shortages are coming. As a church community we can no longer gather together in person for weekly church services, weddings, funerals, picnics, or other events. Instead we meet online. It’s a different world today than it was four months ago. The sages of our time debate the long-term impact; some see a rapid return to normal and others see long-term problems. The future is uncertain. We don’t even know when the pandemic will end. Based on past flu pandemics scientists believe this pandemic will continue for two years. Others are more optimistic.

I’m pretty sure I have not told you anything new so far.  My lead-in this morning is to set the stage to explore an important question; Where is God in this pandemic? The question has two angles, one global and one personal. On a global level how can a God that is both all-good and all-powerful allow this sort of disaster to happen to the people God loves? If God were all-powerful surely God could have prevented the disaster and if God were all-loving God would have prevented it.  What gives? It’s an age old question.

One theory proposes God caused Coronavirus to punish us for some perceived sin.  The very notion that God is punishing humanity seems wrong on several counts. For starters the idea of God punishing all of humanity for the sins of a few seems inherently unjust.  It also seems contrary to the very nature of a loving God and it is an idea that Jesus refuted in the story of the man born blind. Perhaps most worrisome to me is, it assumes those promoting the ideas know the mind of God. And while they may claim to know the mind of God they can’t agree on which sin it is we’re being punished for. When Job pondered a similar question God was clear that God’s ways were too far above humanity’s ways for us to understand.

So, how can an all-good and all-powerful God allow a pandemic to happen? For some it’s a mystery and they leave it at that. Others debate what all-powerful means.  I think the story of Job offers a little more insight. God didn’t cause Job’s pain and suffering but God certainly permitted it, and in the end, God restored Job to wholeness. Job is an example of resilience and fortitude in the face of suffering. There is profound wisdom in the story and our world is full of examples where suffering builds and molds character. Is it possible that God created a world where suffering exists because it offers possibilities for personal growth and character development and therefore a better world for humanity is one that includes suffering? One would need to know the mind of God to say with certainty but clearly creating the best world for our growth and development is consistent with God’s loving nature.

Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky’s character Raskolnikov said, “Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart.[2]” I believe Dostoevsky had his fictional character reveal a deep insight into human growth and character. In terms of a true story, Viktor Frankl is a classic example of wisdom born in suffering. If you have not read his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” I highly recommend it. It’s fairly short and easy to read. It is available for free on the internet[3]. Frankl was a psychiatrist who survived the holocaust. He lost literally everything, his wife, all of his belongings and even his research. Yet he came out a wiser man with a profound understanding of human dignity and meaning that probably could not have been learned any other way. 

In short, I subscribe to the notion that God does not cause natural disasters per se but rather God created a world in which events happen that are painful. In time each of us must face mortality; our own and that of our loved ones.  But I also believe that somehow humanity needs these events to deepen our hearts and open them up to one another and in the end as Christians, we believe, that like Job, we will be made whole again. Our most central story, the crucifixion of Jesus doesn’t end with death but in resurrection.  Just as we should never look at the crucifixion without seeing the resurrection, we should not look at this pandemic without seeing the world restored.

Earlier I said there were two angles to where we find God in this pandemic.  We’ve explored a bit of the big picture and tried to correct some misguided theology that a loving God is punishing us. The other angle is personal. Where is God revealed to us as we maneuver through the pandemic and the life and death issues that result?  I believe the question of where God can be found in the pandemic is an essential element of our life as Chrisitians. We are called to grow in our relationship with God, and as we grow, we need to have eyes that notice God at work around us.

Our reading from 1 Peter opens with the question, “... who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?” My first reaction is to poke a little humor at Peter letting him know we have a saying that no good deed will go unpunished. However my deeper belief is the Holy Spirit is inspiring many people to do good.Some of those people may not even realize the source of their inspiration but nonetheless God is present in their acts. I think God is walking closer with us in these trying days. This notion is certainly consistent with a loving God who wants the best for us. So where have I seen God in this pandemic?

For starters mask making has become a new “essential craft” that many thousands of people are doing nationwide to supplement a dire shortage of masks. No they’re not N95 masks but they're far better than nothing. They’re made to protect family, friends, medical workers, and total strangers. They’re made with love, not for profit. And where there is love, God is present.

On social media I have read about people needing basics like paper towels or toilet paper, which are in short supply, and I have encountered strangers doing good by sharing what they have.  Closer to home, Mary started doing chalk drawings on our driveway with encouraging messages  Our neighbors all seemed to appreciate the simple act.  Then I discovered that this phenomena is happening in thousands of driveways all across the nation. This kindness is an act of neighborly love.  Where there is love, God is present.

While I usually stay home, when I do go somewhere, drivers seem much kinder and less aggressive these days. Even small acts of driving courtesy show neighborly love to strangers and where there is love, God is present.

I see our priorities changing.. As home-schooling supplemented with online education becomes the new norm, I see teachers gaining new appreciation.  Likewise, many essential workers are being seen in a new light. In particular those involved in our food supply chain and especially meat processors and grocery store workers. Healthcare professionals have always had respect but I see new found respect and admiration for their work and the risks they are taking.  Those who are essential to our well-being are getting well deserved recognition often only afforded to movie stars, athletes, and the rich and famous. When our attitudes change and we appreciate and love our neighbors more fully, God is there.

I have seen and read about how nature is rebounding from our slow down. Our skies are noticeably bluer these days reflecting our cleaner air. Animals are returning to areas they recently avoided because of people. I fully expect in time we’ll hear about data scientists have collected showing the positive impact the slow down has had on our environment. This is the environment that God gave us dominion over in Genesis. Perhaps the new data will show how we can exercise our dominion with greater wisdom. Where creation thrives, God is present.

Perhaps the most difficult part of sheltering in place is being separated from family and friends. Contact through social media is better than nothing but it can’t replace time together. I miss seeing my daughters and grandchildren. I miss worshiping together in one place with each of you. I recall with great fondness our last exchange of the sign of peace. It was the norm and I took it for granted. I expect most of us long for the day when we can do it again. This loss reflects our love for family, friends and neighbors and where there is love, God is present.

The author Lori Deschene recently said, “Maybe when social distancing is a thing of the past, we’ll hug a little harder, hold on a little longer, and remember that nothing matters more than the time we spend with the people we love.” As we go through this pandemic, have eyes that see love. For where there is love, God is present.

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[1] https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

[2] Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment (Clayton, DE: Prestwick House Literary Touchstone Classic, 2005), 233.

[3] https://edisciplinas.usp.br/pluginfile.php/3403095/mod_resource/content/...

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