Belonging, not Belief
preached by Becca Tatum among the Storydwelling community on July 23, 2023
Romans 8:26-39

Many of you are probably way more up on pop culture than I am – and I’m not talking about teenager pop culture, I’m talking straight up 40-something culture, like what shows are you watching on Netflix. So, don’t judge me when I tell you I’ve just discovered how lovely and sweet Ted Lasso is. And if you don’t know, Ted Lasso is a cheery, optimistic American football coach, hired to coach a struggling English soccer team, by a team owner who is sure he’ll fail because he doesn’t know anything about the game. But what we learn, over time, is that Ted’s not about the game- he’s about the people. He cares about what matters to the team, who they are, and expects them to show that same caring to each other. He coaches the team, not the game.

Ted Lasso may seem like it has nothing to do with the Apostle Paul, or this letter to the Romans, which still basically takes my breath away because it sounds so awful, so exceptionalist, so filled with awful words like ‘chosen’ and ‘justify’ and ‘if god is with us, who can be against us?’ It’s like the very worst of white, Christian nationalism- a poison pill, a bunch of bullies talking about why they’re better than anyone else.

And yes, these words- and centuries of empires- have absolutely been used to build an idea of Christian empire- in the case of Rome, or Spain, or all of Europe, or the United States- where actual elected officials, and candidates, actually say, and believe, that they are better than other people who are not Christian. Who say things like,” In November we are going to take our state back, my God will make it so” (Doug Mastriano, Rep for PA Governor), or “The church is supposed to direct the government, the government is not supposed to direct the church” (Lauren Bobbert, CO Rep), or “Our Constitution is built upon the Bible,” (OK Rep candidate Jackson Lahmeyer). Author Jarod Yates Sexton writes, “Beginning with the merging of Christianity and state power in Rome, the tenets of the faith have been co-opted into aiding in the preservation and expansion of power.”

Cue Ted Lasso. And imagine ourselves not in a country where many elected leaders truly do seem to believe Christian belief is a requirement to lead—but as an oppressed, marginal community of new believers- the Way – struggling to keep practicing justice, radical love, hospitality, and connection- across the traditional lines of class, gender, social status, marital status, and ethnic group which were so powerful in ancient Rome.

Paul’s letter to the Romans in our current context sounds like a horrible political fundraising appeal. But in Paul’s context, it’s more like a locker-room pep talk from the world’s least experienced coach talking to a team which is about to lose its 5th game in a row. Remember that Jesus suffered and died in the machinery of the Roman Empire, because he did things that put love over profit, people over position, human connection over rules that protected power. He didn’t just ignore the rules—he rewrote them. And this letter is written after his death – to a struggling team of Jesus-followers risking their lives and their place in society to keep trying to practice what Jesus knew was right. It’s half time, and they’re getting their butts kicked and it might just be easier to give up, to hide away, rather than go back and be humiliated some more.

Enter Paul, writing the biggest spiritual pep talk to a community who needs to pull together and belong – belong to each other, belong to a growing world of Jesus followers, belong to a future where Love is Queen, not Caesar. Paul knows times are dangerous, and scary. ‘The spirit too comes to help us in our weakness. For we don’t know how to pray as we should, but the spirit expresses our plea with sighs too deep for words.’ I know you feel abandoned, and weak, and scared, and defeated. God knows how you feel. The spirit is with you even if you don’t have words to explain just how bad it is.

For this community, the rest of the passage reminds them that they have a special connection, a special identity- they belong to a team. This team isn’t so popular or powerful as Christianity can seem today. It’s a team of underdogs, people trying on a new way to behave in a world which won’t reward their commitments. Having played on a few teams and watched a few movies, I’m imagining Paul in all the great sports films- clapping in the middle of the locker room, or banging on a trash can, reminding us: this is who you are. You are beloved. You belong to God and to each other. You are more than mere mortals- you are part of a great ocean of love, of spirit, of belonging which transcends the worst of what you are feeling today. You can DO THIS! We can DO THIS TOGETHER!

I have days where this kind of message feels super, and uplifting, and comforting and exciting. I need to be reminded that there is a life, a love, a spirit larger than my brain’s regular anxieties and worries, fears and frustrations. I need to remember that there are things beyond my control, that there is- there just might be – a Love that surpasses all knowing, a spirit who reaches in with sighs too deep for words. I need to remember that I am loved Just. Because. Because nothing can separate me from Love.

And yet. Life is hard, and all these things Paul describes happen- to us, to our beloveds. Megan’s message last week spoke beautifully to a search for God amidst hard things, to the question ‘Where do we find God when hard things are happening?’ I won’t try to repeat what she shared so eloquently, except to say thank you—and to name that so many of our very own beloveds are walking today a hard path- with uncertainty, and illness, and disconnection, and conflict. God is in these things as we help each other through them- just as God, as Paul describes, is imbued in a team of new believers- new belongers- helping them to find a way in a world which really doesn’t want what they know is possible.

Friends, we may not be persecuted in Rome, but we can still be that team of believers and belongers. Believers not as chosen ones or those who are justified- but those who follow a path of love and know that our strength is in our ability to lift up one another. We are a team. We are not all the same. We bring tender love and funny humor; beautiful words and beautiful songs; tender hearts and strong minds. Each of us is not alone in this work and in this world. And each of us is allowed to be broken, imperfect, incomplete, naked.

As a team, we are also connectors and organizers, called to join together in a way that supports us in a world which still seems to reward individual achievements, bullies and power over people. Here in this space we practice collective empowerment, we reach past boundaries, and we commit to keep learning and listening. Writer Linda Noonan captures this idea in her discussion of Romans for Enfleshed: “Where does it hurt?” asks Mama Ruby Sales. “What keeps you up at night?” “Who do you love?”? These questions are core invitations in community organizing. They help to surface the shared pain that forms the foundation for the change we want to see in our world. In Romans, Paul laments the pain of the people and all creation, and goes on to envision a “new creation.” Organizing begins with that same pain and envisions a new order.

So much of our Christian tradition and practice has emphasized belief over belonging. We have, for too long, asked “What do you believe?” instead of “Where does it hurt?” or “What does belonging look like?”

Across the country and the globe, people continue to organize, create webs of intentional relationship, build collective power out of shared pain, shine a light on broken systems, imagine new ways of belonging and community care, and hold those responsible for change accountable.”

That’s an invitation I want. An invitation to belong, not believe- and an invitation to belong to each other in ways that transcend pain and separation, that reach past our own fears and shame and share that love, Love at the pulsing heart of life, Love at the heart of God who knows our heart’s deepest needs. Beloveds, belong to one another today- and always- and belong to the heart of our love seeking its way in the world. May it be so.