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Sermon delivered on Sunday, March 22, 2020 (revised for print)

Several people asked me this week if I thought the virus was sent by God to punish the world for its wickedness. It’s not a new question. Throughout history, disasters have been attributed to the divine as punishment. We even have it in recent history. Some people announced that HIV was God’s wrath against homosexuals in the 1980’s. This pandemic is no different. From church pastors to world leaders–and even Kourtney Kardashian–people are claiming that COVID-19 is God’s punishment for everything from the acceptance of transgendered individuals to persecution of Christians to colonialism by the West to generalized “world evils.”.  And our own government officials refer to COVID-19 as an “Act of God.” God must be behind it, and God must be punishing us for _______________ (fill in the blank).

But my answer is “No.” I don’t believe this virus is a lightning bolt of God’s wrath. I am of the opinion that humans are the root cause. Historically, we’ve done a very good job of bringing disaster on ourselves thanks to arrogance, competitiveness and greed.  I’m more of the opinion that God has given us over to ourselves–for the record, not a good idea. For instance, our rape of the planet for fossil fuels, the fouling of our rivers and streams with toxic chemicals, the cutting down of forests, just to name a few, have unleashed all kids of destruction and devastation. Human presence has done more harm to God’s good creation than anything else–no wonder it groans! And when it groans under the failure of humans to care for it (as God intended), it tends to reject us.

I’m sure that God is not happy about any of this, and I’m sure there are plenty of days that God has wondered if it was worth forming the earth into the “dirt creatures” and putting them in charge of God’s beautiful garden.  But no, I don’t believe God has sent this disaster as divine punishment. On the other hand, I DO believe God can and will use this crisis for good. Because that is who God is. As much as God dislikes what humans have done to themselves and God’s creation, God still is love–as evidenced by God coming in the flesh and tabernacling with us. It’s called “mercy” and “grace.”

I believe that God uses crises and challenges to invite us to return to God—to repent of our destructive ways. My favorite C. S. Lewis quote is this: “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Let’s be honest. We’ve been deaf for way too long time. But when God shouts, it is only to awaken us to God’s presence, God’s love, and God’s grace. And now that God has gotten our attention, God wants us to do some self-reflection and return to God with newfound humility and heartfelt confession.

I believe that God also uses crises and challenges to bring us into right relationships—not only into a right relationship with God, but into right relationship to ourselves, to others, and even to the rest of creation. For too long, we have done whatever we’ve wanted in the name of freedom and liberty. We have treated others and the earth with distain. We are self-sufficient. We have no need for living in community or for thinking about how our individual actions may negatively impact the common good. Suddenly, thanks to this pandemic, we are forced into the realization that we are intimately connected–for good or for ill. One person’s choice to be in public with a fever, cough or sneeze puts everyone around them at risk.  It took an order to self-quarantine (kind of like a disciplinary time-out) for us to remember that we are in this together–and only by looking out for the interests of others will we get through this.  Isolation also reminds us how much we need the connection of community. This is God’s invitation to reset ourselves toward God’s heart–and to orient ourselves toward one another in love. This is the essence of the Kingdom of heaven.

Finally, I believe that God uses crisis and challenges to give us an opportunity to do God’s work and show God’s love to the world through our actions and choices. Whether it is in opening our wallets to help those who are suffering financially due to work closures or finding creative ways to encourage those who cannot self-quarantine because their work is considered “essential,” or sharing messages of hope online, we have an opportunity to make a difference and point others to the sufficiency of God’s grace. We can be the hands of Jesus.

When the early church in Acts 4 faced a crisis, they began to practice a kind of socialism—a “Jubilee” sharing of what they had so there were no poor among them. They took seriously the call of Christ to feed the hungry, give shelter to the wanderer, care for the sick and advocate for the incarcerated. And they had so internalized “love your neighbor as yourself” that when 2,000 people were dying every day in Rome from the Antonine Plague of the mid-2nd century, the “resurrection people” were ready to offer help and hope. Historian Sarah Yoemans has suggested that the spread of the plague was a major factor in the spread of the gospel. This pandemic is an opportunity for us to put our words into action—to creatively love and connect with each other—especially toward those experiencing physical and economic hardship. It is an opportunity to choose a different future.

All this to say that as hard and challenging and frustrating and anxiety-producing as this pandemic is, it is not God’s wrath, but God’s (tough?) love full of opportunity.  It is ultimately, a gift of right relationships and renewal of faith, hope and love. As hard as this crisis is, it is our opportunity to participate in the creation of God’s new heaven and earth–where justice is right at home.

When this is over–and it will be over–we will grieve what has been lost, but we will also rejoice at what we’ve discovered.  And by God’s grace, we will refuse to go back to the way things were–because that way was killing us.  By God’s grace we will hold on the new ways we’ve learned and continue to live into the Jubilee revolution marked by justice, equity, care for the vulnerable and a life-sustaining social order.

Let it be, Lord. Let it be. Amen.

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