The following is a sermon Dr. Dunnam presented on 3/26/20 via LiveStream to the residents of Kirby Pines in Memphis, TN

Guest post by Dr. Maxie Dunnam, Minister-at-Large

The love of Jesus in me greets the love of Jesus in you, and brings us together in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

It’s not by nature or style, but a couple of weeks ago I offered to preach in Vespers. Marilyn was not sure if and how we would continue Vespers, and some of the persons she had lined up to preach were already canceling. It certainly isn’t that I have something to say that others may not have already said, and it isn’t that I relish dealing with such mystery and confusion as is ours with the Coronavirus.

Where is God in this raging Coronavirus?

As of today, March 26, there are more than 70,000 cases in the U.S. and over 1000 deaths.

So here I am. I speak first, not as preacher but as your friend and fellow resident here at Kirby Pines. Unlike our friends throughout our city, we live in a more intimate community. That makes our responsibility more demanding. So I beg you, remember our preventive rules–keep distance from one another. We laugh as this–and its good to keep a jovial spirit, but friends this is not a casual matter. Especially in a community like ours, this may be the critical issue in how the virus deals with us. Too many of us are disregarding it. You owe it not only to your own protection; you owe it to the persons around you. 

Those who know Jerry and me, know that we are huggers, so we struggle to be disciplined. We are working at it, so let’s keep our distance; a smile and a wave must take the place of handshakes and hugs.

That’s my word as a friend, now I become your preacher for this worship time. I would normally begin with a particular Scripture reading, but I’ll be using a number of passages, so I begin with a story:

Bishop Gerald Kennedy was one of my heroes. He was named one of the most effective preachers of the 20th century, and made the cover of TIME Magazine. I used to drive for hundreds of miles to hear him preach whenever he would come to the Southeast. It was because of him that I chose California when I left Mississippi in I964. I wanted a leader like him.

He was a phenomenal preacher.  He could preside over the hectic and trying business of the Annual Conference all morning long, and then at 11:30, announce a hymn and stand to preach a 25-minute sermon that would electrify and challenge the congregation.

Then it happened: A stroke that left him almost unable to speak. What a mockery of fate! The very talent with which he was uncommonly gifted was taken away by one fell blow of nature. For the last 10 years of his life, he could not preach and could hardly even speak.

I’ve thought about the bishop as I have pondered the question of this sermon, Where is God in this COVID-19? Where was God in the bishop’s stroke?

You see, though the magnitude of the Coronavirus is staggering, the questions we are asking are not new. It’s amazing how quickly we forget. I believe the reason we forget is that we are not clear in our commitment; we don’t wrestle and settle what we believe about the nature of God. So let me plant a thought in your mind now. This conviction is pervasive in everything I will be saying. Is God all-powerful? Of course God is. Is God all-loving? Of course He is. But listen, listen now. When we deal with the Coronavirus, don’t we concentrate more on God’s power? And we wonder, if God is all-powerful, why doesn’t God stop this thing right now? Listen now: If God could stop it and doesn’t, what does that say about God’s love?

I put that struggle in another historical context, because I don’t want you to miss the gravity of it. On Sunday, December 26, 2004, over 200,000 people were killed by a tsunami in the Indian Ocean. Entire congregations,  gathered for worship on that Lord’s Day, were swept away in death. That’s the historical fact, and friends, that sort of thing has happened throughout our history. With that picture  in your mind, along with the raging Coronavirus, listen to the biblical fact expressed in Mark 4:41: “Even the wind and the sea obey [Jesus].” That is as true today as it was then. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).

So, we can’t deal with the Coronavirus as though it is unique. Not to this magnitude, but every day the issues that cause us to wrestle with whether we are going to trust God or not take place. Think about it: 

A 32-year-old young mother is stricken with a stroke, left helpless to care for three children.

My nephew, a successful attorney, commits suicide, leaving three young married children and his four grandchildren.

A baby is born with defects that limit her for life.

Every person here could add to that list. Could God have stopped any of those things from happening? If He could, why didn’t He?

I doubt if there is a satisfactory answer to that question, but I am going to deal with it by speaking generally to the fact that, sooner or later, something is going to happen like some of the things that are going to result from this Coronavirus: death, financial disruption, individual emotional and social disruption, even suicide.

Return to my hero Bishop Kennedy. He wrote a number of books, some of them collections of his sermons. In the first book of sermons he published, he included a sermon titled The Half-Witted Brother. It was on the theme of unexplained evil and suffering. The bishop used the philosophy of an African tribe that said, “Although God is good and wishes good for everybody, unfortunately He has a half-witted brother who is always interfering with what God does.”

Images are not to be taken literally but for the powerful truth they suggest. And certainly the truth is here. There is a tragic dimension to life, “a half-witted brother” who is always messing up what God seeks to do. We could talk about that in terms of the fall and original sin, but let’s stay with the obvious fact that there is a tragic dimension to life, and we may never be able to explain it.

In a portion of her poem, Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning powerfully captured the fact in some powerful lines:

You, who keep account of crises and transition in this life,
sit down the first time nature says plain “NO” to some “Yes” in you,
and walks over you, in gorgeous sweeps of scorn.
…That’s bitter and convincing: after that we seldom doubt
that something in the large smooth order of creation…
has gone wrong.

Most of us don’t live very long before nature says “No” to some “Yes” in us, and “walks over you in gorgeous sweeps of scorn.” That’s a big part of what it means to be human. I experienced it vividly a few days ago. A number of times I sought to talk with a longtime friend in another city. He could not carry on a conversation. This has been the case for about two months now. A brilliant, successful person who began to take his faith deeply seriously a few years ago and has become passionate about missions is now smitten with an infirmity that causes his mind and memory to come and go. At a time when he is deeply committed and could make significant Kingdom contributions, he can’t even talk about them.

I am aware that many of you here in our Kirby community know too well what I’m talking about.

A profound and mysterious truth is in the African philosophy: There is a tragic dimension of life; a “half-witted brother” is always messing up what God seeks to do.  So, we can’t help asking, “Why? Why would a good God allow these tragedies to take place?” 

One of the best reasonable answers was provided by a British preacher, Leslie Weatherhead, in a little book titled The Will of God. The book was written in the midst of World War II, when London was being devastated and destroyed by Nazi bombing. He talked about the intentional will of God, the circumstantial will of God and the ultimate will of God. God has an intentional will, which may be thwarted because God has given us free will. So God has a will for us in our circumstance. But God also has an ultimate will, which will finally be realized. 

As reasonable and as helpful as such rational thinking may be, the truth is, reason does little for our hurting hearts when nature says “No” to some “Yes” within us. However we explain it, whatever reasons come forth and no matter how convincing our theories, when we press the issue, God does have to at least allow things that sometimes bring tragedy–pain and suffering–else we humans are robots without free will. So I am confident in affirming: The Coronavirus is not the will of God; this is not His deliberate judgment upon a sinful nation and an unfaithful church, and it is not any sort of  announcement about “end times.” Listen to me now, listen carefully. I am not questioning God’s power. Even the winds and the waves obey God simply through the word of His Son. This is not God’s will, but God has a will in the midst of it.

So, our first response to the inevitability of nature saying no to some yes within us begins here: Recognize that there is a tragic dimension to life. We simply have to live with the fact, as it were, that a sort of “half-witted brother” will continue to interrupt God’s good intentions for us. Nature will continue saying no to some yes within us.

As l have remembered Browning’s poem, I have also remembered verses from Psalm 30:1-5 (NIV):

I will exalt you, Lord, for you lifted me out of the depths and did not let my enemies gloat over me. Lord my God, I called to you for help, and you healed me. You, Lord, brought me up from the realm of the dead; you spared me from going down to the pit. Sing the praises of the  Lord, …; praise his holy name. For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.

The poet Rilke has helped me here. In his Letters to Young Poet, he wrote:

Be patient to all that is unsolved in your heart
And try to live the questions themselves…
Do not seek the answers which cannot be given you
Because you would not be able to live them….
Live the questions now. 

In the midst of this Coronavirus, or the pain and confusion, bafflement and disorientation that come with tragedy and suffering, questions far outnumber answers.

Why was our child, among all the healthy children of the world, born with Down syndrome? 

Why is it that I suffer when I have sought to be faithful to God? 

Why is Mary’s marriage breaking up? She is a committed Christian and so alive in her faith. 

Why, when life-sustaining goods are plentiful in the world, are millions dying of starvation?

Our questions far outnumber our answers. 

It was so with the psalmist; even though he was faithful, for him questions far outnumbered our answers. Listen to a portion of Psalm 38:

All my longings lie open before you, Lord; my sighing is not hidden from you. My heart pounds, my strength fails me; even the light has gone from my eyes.

Lord, do not forsake me; do not be far from me, my God. Come quickly to help me, my Lord and my Savior. (Psalm 38:9-10, 21-22, NIV) 

 So Rilke writes the young poet: “Do not seek the answers which cannot be given you… Live the questions now.”  

But the puzzle is, How do we live the questions? 

Listen now. We are getting to the practical dimension of the sermon. How do we live the questions?

 First, tell God and others how you feel. That’s especially at the heart of our praying. Tell God and others how you feel. When we do that it reminds us that God is near enough to hear and feel with us, even to hear our complaints. That’s what the psalmist was doing–telling God precisely how he felt.

In honestly sharing with God how we feel, we unburden our own spirit and express our trust in God. In his prayer, the psalmist, unburdened his soul; listen to him, My heart pounds, my strength fails me, the light has gone from my eyes. To express our honest feelings is like a valve that releases all the pent-up tension. Though the burden may still be there, the weight of it diminishes as we name it for what it is and release it to God. 

But not just an unburdening of our spirits, honestly sharing with God and others is an expression of trust. The psalmist was expressing trust when he prayed, Lord, do not forsake me; do not be far from me,…. Come quickly to help me my Lord and my Savior.

Now hear me: We must flavor our expression of trust with expectation. Our big problem is that we want something different to happen in our lives, but we really don’t expect it to happen. There is a vast difference between wanting things to be different and expecting them to be different. The Bible doesn’t merely hold up the possibility that things may be different; the hope offered by the Bible is that we can fully expect things to be different. So in sharing honestly with God how we feel, we unburden our spirit and we express our trust in the Lord.

A second way to live the questions is to allow the questions to teach us. The first lesson is that life isn‘t fair, but life isn’t God.

A young friend in our Christ Church congregation committed suicide three years ago. He would not have done what he did had he not been plagued with a demon of addiction we know so little about. Life isn’t fair, but life isn’t God. My friend’s death was not God’s doing. Not at all! And one day, one day, praise God! God is going to make up for all the unfairness of life brought about by a fallen world. Much of our pain and suffering is brought on by decisions of unperfected persons exercising God’s gift of freedom in selfish, pleasure-seeking, immediate gratification kind of ways; and the fallout is destructive.

The decisions of my friend who took his own life–not just his decision to “end it all,” but decisions all along, brought heartache and suffering to family and friends.

A second lesson we learn from our questions is that God doesn’t get rid of our suffering; He uses our suffering for our good and His glory. The good and the glory may not be recognized immediately. In fact, it may be a long time coming. But living the questions, bearing the pain, experiencing the loss, sharing the sadness–all in the fellowship of sorrow and suffering with others, encompassed by our faith commitment to Christ–in time the revelation will come and good will be recognized and glory will be given to God.

A third lesson of this: Living the questions teach us how fragile and how precious life is. My friend was so young, 23 years, and it ended! Life is fragile and precious. But in a sense, that is a penultimate issue. The ultimate issue is that eternal life is ours through faith in Jesus Christ.

Our life-giving hope is to know that our life is not bound by the years we live here, but is boundless because of the gift of eternal life from Jesus Christ. So I close with this:

It really is inappropriate to speculate that God is the author of this pandemic; we can trace the human actors and sequence of events that caused it to occur. That said, we boldly affirm God reigns over all human activity. Whether He initiated or permitted it, it is certain that God will be using this Coronavirus for His divine purposes.

I have been with people of God who have been long praying for a global awakening. The state of our nation and what we are experiencing in my own United Methodism and other denominations dramatically show that human society is falling into such a state of rancor, depravity and destructiveness that the Lord may be moved to address the issues in extraordinary ways. The spiritual darkness that been descending on our land is resulting in a level of desperation. 

 As persons of faith, we know God is going to finish His new creation in each of us and in the whole of our world. As I stated earlier, God is going to make up for the unfairness brought on by a “fallen world,” our misuses of the freedom God has given us and the suffering that comes from unperfected humankind. One day there is going to be a new heaven and a new earth, and we–we who are “new creatures in Christ Jesus,” those who in faith trust Christ–are going to partner with Christ in the creation of that new heaven and earth. I urge you to kindle that fire of faith as I am seeking to do. Let’s cease looking at the Coronavirus as some sort of sign and begin to look for the Kingdom signs that are surely coming as a result of it.

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