On Luck

Sermon by Pastor Bill Chadwick | October 27, 2019

Genesis 12:1-2

After many months—and thousands of dollars’ worth—of marriage counseling, my first wife and I finally ended our marriage. It was extraordinarily painful for both of us.

For the most part, the congregation I was serving at the time was extremely gracious; especially since it was the 1980s, when divorce was less common among clergy than it is today.

But that graciousness didn’t change the fact that I had failed at the most important thing in my life. On top of the personal pain, I was also incredibly embarrassed. I really didn’t want to talk about it with anyone, certainly not with my parishioners.

Unfortunately, my parishioners didn’t always feel the same way. Many of them couldn’t help but provide sincere, well-meaning comments: “Mary and I have learned that it takes communication above all things”; or “Ralph and I committed to never going to bed angry.” That sort of thing. Well intended. Not terribly helpful.

A couple of months after I announced our impending divorce to the congregation, I was visiting a parishioner in the hospital. He was a regular Sunday worshiper, but a quiet guy with whom I had not become very well acquainted. Our talk at the hospital was probably our first one-on-one conversation without his more outgoing wife and kids around.

Within a few minutes of my arrival, Arlen said, “You know, Bill, I haven’t had the chance to tell you how sorry I am about your divorce. That must be so hard.”

“Thanks. It is really hard.”

“You know, Kitty and I have been married for thirty years. And it’s been a really good marriage.”

And then, wait for it: “You know what the key to our success is?” Arlen looked up at me from his hospital bed. “Whoo boy,” I thought, looking back at him, “here it comes. What will it be this time? ‘Compromise’? ‘Hard work’? ‘Forgiveness’? The ever-popular ‘Communication’?”

I waited silently.

“Luck!” he said forcefully. “Just plain dumb luck!”

I could have kissed him . . . on the lips! This was such a word of grace to me that I almost burst into tears. Thank you, Arlen.

He died unexpectedly a few days later, at age sixty. I am forever grateful to him.

A famous psychologist tells the true story of a family consisting of a mom and dad and three highly successful teenage children. All three of these teens were excellent students, leaders in school and church, good athletes and musicians, simply all-around All-American kids. Someone from their local church, noting what wonderful children these parents had raised, asked the couple if they would be willing to teach a little class on parenting at church, to share the secrets of their success.

“Oh, gosh, we’re not parenting experts or anything,” they replied. “We don’t have any special training.”

“Well, you can’t argue with success,” the inquirer replied. “Just share what sorts of things you did and how they worked.”

Reluctantly, the couple agreed. They put together some ideas and presented a four-week class in their local congregation.

The class was very well received, and word spread. The couple was asked to come and share their insights with other congregations. The couple was hesitant, but they finally agreed. Soon they were “experts” being flown all over the country to share with other parents how they had raised such prize-winning children.

Then, lo and behold, the mother of these three teenagers became pregnant. Soon the couple was in the diaper business once again, after a long layoff. And as this child grew older, it became clear he would be one of those “challenging” children. He was disobedient to his parents, got in trouble at school, and eventually ran afoul of the law. All of the tricks of the parenting trade that had worked so well with the first three children were absolutely useless with this fourth one.

And the parents said: “We have come to realize that we actually know nothing about parenting. That the first three kids turned out so well was nothing but dumb luck!”

They stopped offering parenting classes.

Like Arlen’s words to me, this story is a word of grace to so many parents. We all do the best we can. Of course we do. But how the kids turn out is, to a huge and frightening extent, like so many other things out of our control. And sometimes, I believe, out of their control.


A few years ago, in a sermon, I mentioned a recently published study about the significant role that luck plays in business success. It was not at all the main point of the sermon, or even in my manuscript. I had thrown it in rather offhandedly at the last second.

But what a reaction it provoked from several of the successful businessmen and women in the congregation! “Luck?” they cried, confronting me after the service. “Luck?! We make our own luck in this world! It’s called ‘Hard Work’! Luck has nothing to do with success in business!”

I was shocked. I hadn’t received this strong of a critical reaction even to my most recent sermons on peacemaking or homosexuality.

To one long-retired businessman who was fuming at me, I responded calmly, “Well, I was just quoting the study, but it does seem reasonable to me. For example, my younger brother was highly successful in business until this Great Recession hit. Now he’s having a tough time.”

The parishioner snorted. “Well, then, he’s not a very good businessman, is he?”


(It was only some years later that I learned that no less a successful businessman than Warren Buffet attributed most of his success to luck. He called it “Winning the Ovarian Lottery,” being born into a wonderful family and having good opportunities. Dang! I wish I had known that during this conversation with my parishioner.)

Speaking of the lottery, a good friend of mine tells of occasionally musing about winning the lottery, as so many of us do. Then he took a trip to rural Kenya and realized, “I already won the lottery!” He’s returned every year for mission work at a school there and gives a quarter of his income to it. He’s embodying the promise and the charge to Abram in the book of Genesis (12:2), in which God promises Abram and Sarai, “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that (emphasis mine) you will be a blessing.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer said words to this effect: “Blessing does not constitute privileged status; it confers responsibility.”

Are you lucky? Pass it on.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s