2 Corinthians 6.1-13
Perhaps you have read Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. It tells the story of Cheryl’s 1,100 mile hike on the trail that follows the mountains through California, Oregon, and Washington State. It is a fascinating study in endurance. Strayed tells the story of her struggles on the trail. The Pacific Crest Trail is known for its extremes. Extreme cold in the Sierra Nevadas, extreme heat in the desert of the Mojave. Extreme altitude that is constantly changing. And extreme isolation for much of the trail. And Strayed experienced all of the above. She fought with her gear, struggled to find water in the desert, was forced off the trail by snowpack in the mountains, and dealt with both loneliness and unwanted attention. It is a powerful story of one finding physical, emotional, and spiritual strength that she did not know she had.
While Strayed showed incredible endurance on the trail, the real story of endurance was the patience that she showed through the struggles of her life. The book is really a memoir of her life, and her 1,100 mile journey served as a symbol of the struggles that she fought throughout her life. As she relates the story of wild animals and toes bruising black, she also tells the story of her mother’s death and the tremendous effect it had on her life. She tells the story of her heroin use and abuse and how she fought it. She tells the story of her marriage and divorce and what that did to her. Again, the word that kept coming back again and again as I read the book was “endurance.” I was awed by her endurance that kept her upright on mile after mile of the trail, and year after year of her difficult life.
As she continued on this journey, both physical and emotional, she returned to a book of poems by Adrienne Rich titled The Dream of a Common Langauge. She read the book over and over again, especially a poem titled Power, beginning on the first night in her tent:
Living in the earth-deposits of our history
Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old cure for fever or melancholy a tonic for living on this earth in the winters of this climate
Today I was reading about Marie Curie: she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness her body bombarded for years by the element she had purified It seems she denied to the end the source of the cataracts on her eyes the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil
She died a famous woman denying her wounds denying her wounds came from the same source as her power
These words became a strength for Strayed as she hiked, coming to understand – and not deny – that her wounds came from the same source as her power. And throughout her journey, this became her strength.
Her story is one that echoes that of the Apostle in today’s Scripture reading. When we join Paul’s story today, it has been a long journey already. Many of us have heard the story of Paul, the man who used to oppress and punish Christians, who in turn became oppressed and punished himself. He was beaten. Jailed. Tortured. Threatened. And that’s just by his enemies. That doesn’t even begin to describe what his friends did to him! Or at least his supposed allies within the church. Today’s passage comes at the tail end of a series of letters between him and the Corinthians. It seems that after Paul had spent a year and a half in Corinth, beginning the church, growing and teaching the next generation of leadership, bankrolling them with his own financial support from tent-making, he moved on. And as soon as he did, the gossip began. All of a sudden, members of the congregation started talking about him behind his back. Something that has never ever happened in any other church since, I’m glad to report. And they started questioning his authority. Quietly at first, and eventually more and more loudly, they suggested that he had been leading the church in the wrong direction.
Scholars sometimes call these turncoat allies “Superapostles.” They suggested that since Paul was not really an agent of God, and that his struggles were evidence of his failure. They used an age-old argument that God only blesses those who do what they are supposed to, and punishes those who don’t. And clearly, they suggested, Paul’s continual beatings, imprisonments, and the like, were simply the result of the fact that he was doing something wrong.
The argument is as old as Job and his friends.
And it is as recent as the same one made by the “Superapostles” of our generation. Proponents of what is often called the “Prosperity Gospel” today suggest that if you are not rich enough, your house is not big enough, or you don’t have the right model and number of cars, you need to focus on yourself and your own “needs.” Victoria Osteen, wife of famous preacher Joel Osteen, elicited swift criticism last year when she told their church: “Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy.”
The Apostle would respectfully disagree.
Instead of following the logic of the Superapostles, who suggest that success and happiness and security are our ultimate goals, Paul reframes the argument. He turns the tables on the Superapostles. They suggested that they had a better right to lead the church, because they had more success and less difficulty than Paul did. But instead of apologizing for his failures, Paul exalted in them.
Today’s passage is an example of what is sometimes called a “hardship catalogue.” It is a list of all of the stuff that had happened to him and all of the struggles that he had faced. He goes through this huge laundry list of all of the things that have happened to him. Remember, this is not whining or playing the victim. According to the Superapostles, such a list should have surely indicted him as a tremendous failure. But instead of giving them the strength of their argument, he reframes his suffering.
“You accuse that I was arrested…I boast that not only was I arrested, but I was imprisoned.”
“You accuse that I was beaten…I boast that not only was I beaten, I was tortured within an inch of my life.”
“You accuse that I am not popular enough…I boast that I am known by the One who knows me best!”
And so, he offers this list with 28 different hardships. Twenty-eight different examples how or reasons why he has had to struggle. In a hardship catalogue from this timeframe, it is most important to look at the first and the last items on the list. And what is the first thing that Paul mentions in his list? Hyponeme (in Greek): best translated as patience…fortitude…perseverance… or endurance.
In other words, the best evidence for a follower of Christ is not that they are driving the right car or enjoying success and happiness in any other predictable manner. Instead, evidence that they are on the right track is this: they endure.
And to punctuate his point, he appeals to the best argument that a Christian can use: “Jesus!” If our lives are supposed to be about an easy journey, freedom from accusation, and posh surroundings, then why did Jesus live as a homeless man until the day that he was arrested, beaten, and killed? Paul even goes old school on them. He quotes Isaiah, from one of the passages often connected to Jesus, sometimes called the Suffering Servant passages. He uses this passage to appeal to this ancient idea that even God’s best servants will struggle. Even those called by God must endure.
And not just endure as a side note on the way to heaven. No, Paul is making a significant point about the nature of the life of grace. The example of the Suffering Servant, the model of Christ, and now the example of Paul and his leadership is this. The life of grace is a life of endurance.
The Apostle is telling us that when the struggles of life come, the Christian will not slip into the prosperity Gospel of the Superapostles and assume that they are doing something wrong. Instead, according to Paul, they will find an opportunity to rejoice. Which is the last item on the list – equal in importance to the first: “(I appear) as having nothing, and yet possessing everything. “ Or, in other words “when it looks like I have nothing, I actually have everything that I need!”
“Easy for you to say, Pastor.”
For far too long, well-meaning pastors have stood in pulpits like this and told Christians that all they need to do is endure. Endure the abuse and maybe he’ll stop. Endure the pain of singleness when what you really want is someone to spend your life with. Endure the struggle because that’s what Jesus would do.
Today’s sermon was written before tragic events at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. But throughout the week, I wondered what it might sound like to their ears. What might the message of endurance sound like for those who have endured so much? It became clear to be that there is a time to do more than endure, to engage with more than patience, and to respond against suffering and pain. My hope is that the events this week are a catalyst for as a congregation to have some continuing hard conversations about the church and our culture. After the emotion of the first few days has passed, I think it is our responsibility to ask together what our response ought to be, what it means to be Christ-followers in these times, what it means to be church.
Yet, it doesn’t take only a national tragedy to struggle with this question of when and how to endure. How many of us have struggled with our own personal pain, only to hear someone like me in a pulpit like this suggesting that all we need to do is endure.
“Easy for you to say, Pastor.
Are you the one in bankruptcy? Are you the one suffering the silent pain of a miscarriage?
Are you the one who sees a marriage slowly crumbling apart?”
Paul’s platitudes can ring hollow; his words seemingly lobbed from beyond the centuries might or might not be a salve to your pain today.
And so, instead of trying harder to tell you to endure, I will instead offer three words for those hurting…those who find themselves in a hardship of their own, struggling to make sense of it.
One. “I’m sorry. I wish I could make it better.”
Two. “I’m a decent listener, if you need someone to talk to. I can’t promise I can make the pain go away, but I can listen if that helps the endurance. And I would suggest that I am not the only one in the room qualified to listen, either.”
And three is actually a word from Cheryl Strayed. Or the last words from her book. After she had completed her external journey, as well as her internal one, she sat down on the banks of the Columbia River in between Washington and Oregon. And these words came forth…
“It was all unknown to me then, as I sat on that white bench on the day I finished my hike. Everything except the fact that I didn’t have to know. That is was enough to trust that what I’d done was true. To understand its meaning without yet being able to say precisely what it was, like all those lines from The Dream of a Common Language that had run through my nights and days. To believe that I didn’t need to reach with my bare hands anymore. To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life – like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me.
How wild it was, to let it be.”
A picture of endurance.
A picture of faith.
A picture of grace.