Scripture: Romans 10:12–17
Despair is an embodied thing.
That is the message of Resmaa Menakem, a psychotherapist and trauma specialist. He talks about the impact of racism on black and brown bodies in the United States, and he does it in stark medical terms. He writes about an embodied despair that manifests as a trauma response in a couple of different ways. A single individual must deal with the impact of such trauma caused by structural racism and white supremacy, often over the course of a lifetime. But Menakem shows evidence that generations of racism compounds this effect, building deeper psychological and physiological impacts, which is part of the reason that black and brown persons have higher rates of physical and medical disease:
The answer to why so many of us have difficulties is because our ancestors spent centuries here under unrelentingly brutal conditions. Generation after generation, our bodies stored trauma and intense survival energy, and passed these on to our children and grandchildren. Most of us also passed down resilience and love, of course. But, as we saw with my grandmother—and as we see with so many other human beings—resilience and love aren’t sufficient to completely heal all trauma. Often, at least some of the trauma continues.
Despair is an embodied thing. That also seems to be the message from the first couple of verses from today’s Scripture passage. We find ourselves back in the book of Romans, and back to Paul’s message to this cluster of tiny house churches, in the midst of the massive city of Rome. We have looked at the first 8 chapters, and now we find ourselves in the second half of the book, where Paul’s emphasis changes. If I could make a gross overgeneralization, the first eight chapters are about psychology—our inner psyche—and the last eight are about sociology—or outer manifestation in the world. The first eight are about anthropology—about the universality of our participation in the brokenness of the world, as well as the overwhelming love and grace of God which is inseparable from us. And the last eight are about ecclesiology and missiology—about what that reality looks like in the church, and in the world. It’s in the last half of the book that we read not to be “conformed to the world but transformed”…telling us to participate in the transformation of the world around us. It is here we read one of Paul’s great passages on spiritual gifts, ways that we might use the gifts that God has given us individually in order to support the communal church, and the shared work of mission. It is here that Paul gives teachings about how we ought not judge one another, but lift each other up in love.
And it’s in this last half of the book where he spends A LOT of time talking about the intersection between Jews and Gentiles. Clearly, this was a significant issue in the Roman congregations, as it was in the church at large. The basic question was whether or not the Jews held a privileged position as God’s people, or if God’s grace was bestowed in a new way upon the Gentiles. There seemed to be some level of assumption in the culture and the church that some bodies were acceptable, and others were simply second class.
Which is, in fact, a significant point that I want to make today. Like we have several times before, the problem with reading Paul’s text at face value is that we read back through 2,000 years of history—including history of the church—to assume that Paul means something that he probably didn’t mean. When he says “There is no distinction between Jew and Gentile,” that gets lost in translation pretty quickly. For us today, it means that Paul was dismantling the cultural assumptions of a privileged position of some over others. So, as it always is for us in the church today, we have to ask where in our culture and in our churches are some bodies deemed acceptable, while others are relegated to second class.
· Here is where we return to Resmaa Menakem’s point that there are elements of growing up black or brown in the United States that is a despair-embodying experience. I think Paul would have us ask how we in a more privileged position ignore the power of our own whiteness.
- I think of my conversations with trans Christians, who name with frustration that they are always having to explain themselves, defend themselves, educate others.
- Or consider the vote taken this week by the Southern Baptist Convention, to kick out any church who has a woman pastor or ordained clergy. Their statement clearly attempts to control how the Holy Spirit calls people, and tries to set limits on who is acceptable. It’s easy for us, in the position of an American Baptist denomination that has long supported women in ministry, and a congregation who has had women on pastoral staff for decades, to shrug our shoulders or shake our heads as the SBC continues a long death march to irrelevance. But I think we need to consider our sisters in Christ who have just been told that they don’t matter. That their calling is the reason that their beloved congregation has been punished. I think we need to consider the little girl who is raised in those churches, told that her voice, and her perception of her calling, is simply wrong.
I know it is ironic to talk about empowering women in a sermon on Romans, where Paul’s words are still taken to silence women and stifle their call. But as I’ve said before, and I am sure I’ll need to say again, this was clearly Paul’s acknowledgement that women in his time and place weren’t yet trained in the Scriptures, simply because they wouldn’t have been in Jewish culture. But in plenty of places in his writings, he affirms and identifies women as leaders in the church, as they begin to understand and grow in their leadership. But of course, for 2,000 years, those who would stifle those voices have chosen to ignore that fact, in order to cherry-pick their theology and interpret those passages in an intentionally blinded—and blinding—way.
Our culture, like Paul’s, embodies despair, proclaiming some bodies acceptable and relegating others to second class.
“How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
As an antidote to that embodied despair, Paul offers an alternative vision. This next section, even beyond where I finished reading, is an extended exegetical sermon on the book of Isaiah. He references the words of the prophet, who was speaking to a community who absolutely was told that they didn’t matter. Those in Exile were relegated to second class citizens, that their lives and their bodies were fundamentally less-than. And yet, Isaiah proclaimed to them good news!
For Paul, this Scriptural story became a way to proclaim to all members of the Roman church—those privileged by position AND those considered less-than. Paul’s argument was that all of God’s people mattered, regardless of what society said about them. By the way, if you want a really good sermon on this, go back and listen to LaMoine Tatum’s sermon from last week. Hers came from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians instead of the Romans, but the theological point was the same. Her point was that Paul proclaimed that our identity is first and foremost in Christ. Our identity is not defined by the despair of those who would limit and proclaim despair on bodies like hers. And she didn’t pull any punches—conservatives and progressives alike can be guilty of this limiting identity, instead of one proclaimed in Christ.
Well, today’s sermon’s theology has been brought to you by LaMoine Tatum! Paul says the same thing here in Romans. In spite of the limitations of our culture or even our churches, our identity is in Christ! It is already settled! It is he who defines who we are, not some proclamation from some denomination, or the embodied despair of our culture. It is no accident that Paul uses this metaphor from Isaiah that exemplifies how the Gospel is manifest in our bodies: “blessed are the feet…” Paul takes this metaphor of an embodied Gospel and further amplifies it. How are God’s children to know that they are loved? Someone has to tell them! And who is going to tell them? Someone has to be sent! Again, this is Paul’s Ecclesiology 101. The church must be the tellers, and the senders of the tellers, of this embodied Gospel.
“Beautiful are the feet.”
Let me say a thing about feet. This is my current iteration of running shoes for running on trails. You can see the chunks of dirt that might occasionally fall off of them as I wave them around. These were the shoes that I was wearing on a trail run a couple of weeks ago with the Blue Team. I was passing a big family going the opposite direction on the trail, when one of the family members stopped me in the middle of the trail and pointed to my shoes: “Hey, what do you think of the Speedgoats?” (the name of the shoe is a Hoka Speedgoat). And we proceeded there on the trail to have a conversation about shoes. About rock plates and toe boxes. I told him I usually go with the Brooks Cascadias, but this was my first pair of Speedgoats and I like them so far, but I want to see how long they last. We stood there for a couple minutes and had this conversation. And perhaps it is important to note that all of this is taking place in the middle of a torrential rainstorm. It is a deluge all around us. His kids had just passed me, splashing through what was basically a mile-long puddle through middle of the trail. Lightning was crashing just on the other side of the trees. So what would be important enough for two strangers to stand there and have an extended conversation on a trail in the middle of a rainstorm? Shoes! Feet! Those who hike or run know full well the importance of the right pair of shoes! Having the wrong pair can mean injury, but the right pair can make all of the difference.
OK, so Paul didn’t care about Speedgoats or trail shoes, but he absolutely understood the importance of the feet of those prepared to share the good news. Paul insisted that our job as the church was to embody that good news for all of God’s children. This isn’t just a preacher thing. For Paul, all Christians have a role in embodying that good news. I am reminded of the old hymn “Sermon in Shoes,” written by Ruth Harms Calkin:
Do you know, Oh Christian, you’re a sermon in shoes?
Jesus calls upon you, to spread the gospel news,
(1) So walk it, and talk it, a sermon in shoes.
(2) Live it, and give it, a sermon in shoes.
(3) Teach it, and preach it, a sermon in shoes.
(4) Know it, and show it, a sermon shoes.
Blessed are the feet of those who share the good news of Christ! Church, what will it mean for us to take that to heart today? For us to look at those who have been told that their bodies don’t matter, that they are examples of embodied despair, and say “I see you. I see your despair. I see the ways that systemic racism has impacted your body and soul. I see the ways that institutionalized sexism has told you that you don’t matter. I see you and I have a different message. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. Your body is not second class, but created in the image of God.” Church, what will it mean for those who hear that message, and for us in the telling, to be a Sermon in shoes? To proclaim an embodied Gospel? Blessed are the feet of those who tell the good news.
LaMoine also invoked the story last week of Juneteenth, a reminder of tomorrow’s celebration of the final slaves freed following the Emancipation Proclamation, deep in the far edges of Texas. Think about the connection. These slaves had already been freed. For two and a half years, that was their true and legal identity. But because of the embodied despair of their culture, they didn’t even know the truth of that identity. “How will they know the truth unless someone tells them? How will someone tell them unless they are sent?”
Jayne Marie Smith gives us another cool wrinkle to the story, and one that she ties with Paul’s phrase “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” On that June 19th, General Gordon Granger read aloud Order Number 3, but what I didn’t know until recently was that he was flanked by thousands of free Black men, fresh off of victories for the North. Not only did those slaves hear words of freedom…they saw what freedom looked like. “How beautiful…”
May we both hear and speak words of freedom to all of God’s children. May we preach a sermon in shoes. May it be said of us one day: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”