When Things Do Not Go that Way

By Chuck Poole

Every three years, the lectionary places in our path this morning’s lesson from the gospel of Mark. And, every time it rolls back around, things work out wonderfully well; twice — first, for the unnamed woman with the debilitating, isolating, flow of blood; and then, for Jairus, who had lost his daughter, only 12-years-old. Two great sorrows, both relieved by the touch of Jesus.

Which is the way things go sometimes. Sometimes, our deepest sorrows become our highest joys, because our heaviest burdens are lifted away. That which we fear the most does not come to pass; the sadness we have lived with the longest is lifted; the disease is healed; the pain is relieved; the conflict is resolved; the worst is behind us; and the best is before us.

As it was for the suffering woman and the grieving man in today’s gospel lesson, so it is for us. It’s a miracle. Sometimes things work out that way. And, sometimes, things do not work out that way. Sometimes, the burden is not lifted; the struggle is not resolved; the disease remains; the sorrow stays. Things do not always work out for us the way they worked out for the people portrayed in today’s gospel lesson.

Such is the nature of life. To say as much is not to be negative or pessimistic, but rather to be truthful. People do not come to church to be told cheerful-sounding things which will not prove true in life’s toughest arenas. Anything we say concerning suffering and loss must ring true on the saddest ears in the room.

The truth is, there is a long list of the ways things can go wrong in this life and, hile none of us will go through all of them, all of us will go through some of them; sometimes, one hard thing after another, sometimes more than one difficult thing at the same time—not because God wills it for us or sends it to us, but because that is the nature of life in the world.

To speak of the unresolved struggles and unrelieved sorrows of life often leads to questions about “unanswered prayers,” a way of thinking about prayer which measures the worth of our prayers by whether or not they “worked;” a way of thinking about prayer which sees prayer as a transaction in which we may be able to persuade God to give us what we need if we can show God enough faith, or persistence, or prayer partners. It is a way of thinking about prayer to which we are naturally and understandably drawn, partly because it leaves us with some control: If we can just pray harder or have more faith, perhaps we can get God to do our will.

There are, of course, some things in this life over which we do have that much control. Are we kind? Are we thoughtful? Are we truthful? Do we live lives of integrity? Do we practice careful speech? Do we treat all others as we wish all others to treat us?

Beyond those things over which we do have some autonomy and control, there are all those things which lie beyond our power to manage. There are sorrows and struggles, burdens and losses, diseases and injuries, some of which turn out amazingly well, as happened twice in today’s gospel lesson; but there are others which do not turn out that way.

But, still, we pray, as C.S. Lewis said, “Not because we are trying to change God, but because we can’t not pray.” Once, we may have thought Paul’s admonition in Philippians that we should “pray without ceasing” was impossible to obey. But the longer we live, the more we find it impossible not to pray without ceasing. It’s breathing in whatever news life brings, of joy or sorrow, and breathing out either, “Thank you, Lord” or “Help us, Lord” with prayer becoming our life until, eventually, our life becomes a prayer. Sometimes, our prayers change our lives and, other times, our lives change our prayers, from the first best hope, to the next best hope, to the last best hope.

But there is never no hope. Because we love God as unconditionally as God loves us, we never stop believing that God is with us and for us, when life could not be better and when life could not be harder.  Which is why, if we say, when we do get the miracle, “Isn’t God good!” we also say, when we don’t get the miracle, “Isn’t God good!” Because we know that the goodness of God is not tied to how well things go for us. Sometimes, things turn out as well for us as they did in today’s gospel lesson. Sometimes they don’t. Either way, God is good, and, either way, we love and trust God the same.

On a Sunday morning in 1927, at a church in Aberdeen, Scotland, a pastor named Arthur J. Gossip, suffering through an enormous crisis in his own life, preached the now famous sermon, “When Life Tumbles In, What Then?” We know the answer to that tender old question. When life tumbles in, we still get up every morning and take care of what we can take care of, our own kindness, gentleness, truthfulness and integrity. And we still love and trust God, praying the same as ever, only harder, for God to help us go through the wonderful thing God might have done. but did not do.

Or, as one wise soul once said, “Faith is what you have left when you don’t get the miracle.”

Amen.

This sermon, preached. June 27, 2021 at Northminster Baptist Church in Jackson, Miss., the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost. Listen to sermon.

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