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(James 5: 19-20)
As you know, our focus this month, as part of our 2020 #ConnectTPC theme, has been connecting with our church family. In our sermons, we’ve talked about the depth and breadth of this connection – loving each other, carrying each other, opening our hands to each other. The kinds of things that come naturally with those we love, those we already know. And we are called to deepen these connections, to continue loving one other and getting to know each other as siblings in Christ.
But today I want to shift things a bit, look at this connection in a different light, one that is undoubtedly more challenging and perhaps even a little convicting. I want to talk about connection as accountability.
I remember in college, I had a suitemate who told me how every morning as a kid, as he walked out his door to head to the bus stop, his mother behind him would say, “Live accountably.” Maybe one of your parents had a saying they left with you with at the start of every day. My grandfather told my mom and her sisters, “Apply yourself.” I used to say to our boys, “Learn stuff.”
For my college friend, it was “Live accountably.” Which is great. Except he had no idea what it meant. None at all. All those years hearing it, and he just kind of nodded his head and rolled his eyes, as young boys are prone to do. But he didn’t know what it meant; and he felt bad asking her, as long as she’d been saying it to him.
One day he got up the nerve. And what she told him “living accountably” meant is that you honor your word. You answer to your actions. You accept responsibility.
But that’s not all, she told him. It’s not just about what you do with yourself. See, no one walks through this life by themselves. You are not just accountable to yourself. You also are accountable to other people, and they are accountable to you. Imagine that life is a journey, and the only way to get where we want to go is to ensure that we all get there together. Sometimes we have to grab others by the hand and help them along the way; sometimes they have to grab ours. And sometimes we have to guide people back on the path when they start to veer off course – or allow them to do the same for us. That’s not getting in other people’s business or being judgmental. That’s not trying to live someone else’s life for them. That’s realizing we all need each other to get where we’re going. That’s living accountably.
Now I don’t think my friend remembers his mother’s words this precisely. But it obviously made an impression on him, what his mother said; the importance of accountability when it comes to living with other humans on this planet – and, more specifically for us, living as a family of faith faithfully in this world.
The writer of James knew all about being accountable in the Christian life. His short letter is packed full of all manner of advice; focusing on the practicalities of Christian living. Things like:
- Being quick to listen and slow to anger
- Being doers of the word and not just hearers
- Being someone who avoids showing partiality
- Being someone who watches what they say
Now there was good reason for this advice. James was writing his letter to an assortment of churches “in the dispersion.” That’s the language he uses to describe these dozen or so small congregations on the outskirts of Jerusalem, removed from the typical structures and resources that helped to undergird congregational life. Out there, those churches were a little more isolated. And the surrounding culture was not all that acquiescing to the teachings of Jesus. So James’ letter is written in such a way as to equip these “outposts” to survive and even thrive by depending on each other and holding each other accountable.
Which is exactly the message James communicates in his closing words:
My brothers and sisters, if any of you wander from the truth and someone turns back the wanderer, recognize that whoever brings a sinner back from the wrong path will save them from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins.
In other words: Live accountably.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that James closes his letter with this. I wonder why. Maybe James and my friend’s mom were kindred spirits, saving the best advice for last. Or maybe he held these words off as long as he could, cognizant of the level of discomfort they might cause; the consternation that might arise; and not wanting his readers to check out before letter’s end.
Because while holding ourselves accountable undoubtedly presents its own set of challenges, holding others accountable – and allowing them to do the same for us – is fraught with discomfort and dis-ease. Accountability involves trust and, as my minister colleague friend Shavon Starling-Louis explains, “an understanding of and orientation toward power.” In a wonderful Presbyterian Outlook article, Shavon writes, “We cannot belong together or truly be with each other if power is understood as a power over or (a power) under. What we have to do is promote a power for the mutual benefit of each other.”
It was Shavon, actually, who shared with me, back in the fall over a cup of coffee, something that happened to her and demonstrates perfectly what it means to be accountable to each other and the consequences when we fail at this – especially with an issue so prevalent in American society today. It was early one weekday morning, and Shavon was standing in the airport with a couple of dozen other travelers waiting for the TSA checkpoint to open. I didn’t even realize there was a time those things were closed, but that’s how early she and the others were that day. Everyone was tired and groggy; no one was saying a word. That is, until the TSA guard retracted the nylon strap; and as the checkpoint began coming to life, someone in the mass of people blurted out in a loud voice, “Let the white people go first!”
Now Shavon tells me her first reaction was horror. I imagine she was not the only one. Although for her it was a familiar horror, because when you are a person of color as Shavon is, you see and hear this sort of thing day after day after day, in ways the rest of us have conditioned ourselves not to. Instinct kicked in in the moment and she blurted out, “It is too early in the morning for this kind of evil!”
Which is true. But what is also true is that in that moment not one other person said a word in response, not the many white people there that morning; those who had a moral responsibility to hold their white brother accountable for what he said. It was minutes later when Shavon heard an older white gentleman mumble to himself as he took off his shoes and placed them on the conveyer belt, saying “You don’t treat people like that.”
Which is a perfect response. A perfect way to hold another accountable. If only he had chosen to say that out loud.
My friends, living accountably means we speak up and say “You don’t treat people like that” when we as white people hear or see racism rear its ugly head. It means recognizing the power we have and trusting ourselves enough to speak truth when it matters most. It means demanding more from ourselves and each other as we continue to see the same brokenness, the same sinful structures, play themselves out over and over and over again.
By now I’m sure you’ve heard the tragic story of Ahmaud Arbery, the young man of color in Georgia shot by two white men while out for an afternoon run. There was an article that came out last week titled, “Ahmaud Arbery Holds Us Accountable.” It speaks directly to the ugliness of white privilege culture and, as the author says, “the depravity of any argument that white men had a right to confront him with guns and end his life simply because he was a black man who didn’t explain himself to them.”
But the author goes on to say this:
As we demand justice for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, we must not lose sight of the fact that we must seek absolution for ourselves. We cannot just bow our heads and call it “tragic” and leave it to the authorities and the politicians. Rather, we must own responsibility for Ahmaud’s murder and its cover-up as both an individual and collective sin that stains us all. (And) we must love our neighbors, and…. expand our narrow definition of neighborhood. (We all) failed to protect our neighbor, Ahmaud Arbery. In short, we loved ourselves more than we loved him.
Beloved, if we truly love our neighbors as Jesus calls us to, we in the church cannot let the sin of white supremacy and white privilege continue to eat away at the soul of our country. Ahmaud Arbery was not some black man in Georgia we never knew. He was – and is – our neighbor and our brother. And as the article’s title suggests, he holds us accountable – and not just for his death and the obvious instances of racism around us. He also holds us accountable for the less-obvious ones too.
I am certain you, like me, have seen videos of people confronting store clerks, yelling about having to wear masks or complaining about social distancing guidelines, even spitting at them in protest. All of this, even though these are private businesses who have the right to set and enforce whatever guidelines they choose. I know you’re aware of people in positions of power vehemently demanding that houses of worship start meeting again, defying everything that medical data and health experts are telling us. And even though these are not specifically directed at people of color, it’s important to recognize them for what they are: the vestiges of white supremacy and white privilege culture; a mindset of unquestioned entitlement, untethered exceptionalism, and unashamedly putting one’s self-interests over and above the common good.
As followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to hold accountable those who adopt this mindset. We do this first by confronting our own preconceived biases and assumptions, so we may unlearn what we’ve come to know in order to learn something new and beautiful. Only then will we be able to show others what the apostle Paul calls “a more excellent way.”
In her article, Shavon writes: “We need each other in order to survive. And this need is divinely orchestrated. This interconnectedness is biblical. We belong to each other because the God who has formed us has created us to belong to each other.”
My friends, the community God longs for us to be, and the world God calls us to help build, is one that loves, one that carries, one that opens our hands, and one that lives accountably. May this never be easy for us. May we begin seeing and hearing those things we’ve conditioned ourselves not to. May we trust God enough to say “You don’t treat people like that” when our voice needs to be spoken. And may we encounter a deeper and more beautiful understanding of what it means to be connected.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
 James 5:19-20 Common English Bible translation.
 1 Corinthians 12:31