Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (2 Corinthians 4:8-10) transports me to the campaign trail, where the latest crop of aspiring emperors trade jabs and cheap shots and low blows, all trying to prove which one is the real deal, the bona fide patriot, the true consevative who has suffered mightily for the cause of right, and which one is the counterfeit, the faker, the flip flopper. It looks like it will go the full fifteen, with the eventual winner limping back into the ring covered in battle scars but with a second wind, ready to take on the incumbent. What interests me more than their efforts to prove or disprove ideological purity is their efforts to demonstrate a genu-wine good ol’ boy countriness, whenever they stop in for a cup o’ joe and a slice of pie at the next whistlestop cafe. Here’s where the real flip-flopping occurs, as they go back and forth from looking Presidential and well-tailored, to looking like a member of the local Grange Hall in their flannel shirts and boots, as they trade in the orchestral John Phillip Sousa for some Porter and Dolly. I’m waiting for the two-day beard growth to show up.
Paul was in a campaign of his own with the Corinthian community, facing all sorts of challenges to his leadership. He had his own battle scars from the cheap shots and low blows his theological opponents had thrown his way, in their attempts to undermine his authority with the faith community. He spends a lot of time in the Corinthian correspondence trying to prove to them his bona fides, the source of his authority. And a lot of his argument turns on his suffering, his badge of honor battle scars, his willingness to take a bullet for the Lord. And yet, even in the midst of his argument, I think I see some flip-flopping here in today’s Passage. It’s the same flip-flop evangelists have struggled with through the centuries. You want to paint a picture of the good life of faith, the hope, the joy, the abundant life Jesus promised. And at the same time, if you’re going to be honest, you have to talk about sacrifice, taking up the cross and following Jesus, being persecuted, suffering ridicule and worse. It’s a hard sell, especially to a creature-comfort driven society. And so Paul goes back and forth between the raging storms and the resilient strength of the life of faith – we are persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. But even here, in the crux of Paul’s campaign, I wonder if his opponents couldn’t have raised a challenge and pointed out a flaw in his argument. Hey Paul, you said we are persecuted, but not forsaken, but then you said we carry in our body the death of Jesus. Didn’t the death of Jesus include being God-forsaken? Wasn’t this the real suffering he endured, a much deeper blow than any of the physical wounds? Are you laying your all on the altar of sacrifice or not? Can Paul really promise that those of us who follow Jesus won’t be forsaken, if we take up a cross and follow Him? To me, the most powerful paradox of authentic piety, the most faithful flip flop if you will, is that we simultaneously carry both the death and the resurrected life of Jesus with us in our walk of faith. We cry My God, why have you forsaken me even as we sing He lives within my heart.
This is authentic, earthy stuff. So maybe the street cred of our faith does mean donning the worn out flannel shirt and work boots and having some dirt under our fingernails. Living daily with this deep paradox of despair and delight makes the faith community about as genu-wine countrified and bona fide as it gets. It is theology set to country music, complete with whining pedal steel, with lyrics that often speak of this back and forth between suffering and joy, dying and living. It is Dolly and Porter laughing together as they sing Oh the pain of loving you, oh the misery I go through, never knowing what to do, oh the pain of loving you. Want some pie with that coffee?
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith.