Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
April 25, 2021
“Love and Accountability”
1st John 3: 16-24 – Common English Bible
This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 But if someone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but refuses to help—how can the love of God dwell in a person like that?
18 Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth. 19 This is how we will know that we belong to the truth and reassure our hearts in God’s presence. 20 Even if our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts and knows all things. 21 Dear friends, if our hearts don’t condemn us, we have confidence in relationship to God. 22 We receive whatever we ask from him because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 This is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love each other as he commanded us. 24 Those who keep his commandments dwell in God and God dwells in them. This is how we know that he dwells in us, because of the Spirit he has given us.
“Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth.”
I want to begin by sharing a few things about the epistle of 1st John – not really a letter in the traditional biblical sense, and not likely written by anyone named John. It’s part of a collection of writings from the Johannine community that include the Gospel of John, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd John, and the Book of Revelation. The Gospel of John addresses the conflict between the emerging church and the synagogue, but the epistles of 1st and 2nd John address two major internal, intra-church, conflicts. 3rd John – only 15 verses long – is about one particularly disruptive member of the community.
So, the conflict in 1st John is this: some members denied the full humanity of Jesus; and some members were not being as loving toward one another as they should. The words lying, hatred, refusal to love, and self-deceit are used frequently throughout 1st John. But if they truly embraced the full humanity of Jesus, they would love one another.
Love is the central theme of 1st John. In fact, in it’s 5 short chapters, it uses the word love or loving or beloved 50 times. That’s more than all of Matthew, Mark, and Luke combined in 68 chapters.
As it says in our text for today, “This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us, and [therefore] we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” And then the author makes it crystal clear what that means, not in mere words but action: “If someone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but refuses to help – how can the love of God dwell in a person like that?”
Our Lunch and Lectionary group spent a significant amount of time on Thursday talking about the SOS camp coming to our Park Hill neighborhood in June. SOS stands for Safe Outdoor Shelter. It’s an innovative way to provide shelter and a multitude of social services for 50 unhoused people in a mini tent city for six months. It has generated a lot of reaction in our relatively wealthy neighborhood and plenty of anger and division, with words that resonate with the “we can do better” sentiment of those opposed to the last attempt to address homelessness. Words that didn’t materialize into anything better.
But, instead of just talking about it, I want to show this short news clip about the camp and neighborhood reaction.
First John is written as if the author had submitted a letter to the editor in Greater Park Hill News: “If someone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but refuses to help – how can the love of God dwell in a person like that?” Those are pretty strong words and some might even hear them as accusatory, but it comes down to this:
“Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth.” The use of the words “little children” is not meant as a put down, as in “stop acting like children,” but a term of endearment, closeness and intimacy. Of a tight knit community caught up in conflict.
But loving with actions and truth and not mere words or speech struck me in another way this week. On Tuesday, the officer who murdered George Floyd was found guilty on all counts. A murder that the whole world witnessed. And then the whole world waited, nervously, to see what would happen in response. We were right to disbelieve justice would come to the Floyd family. Remember Rodney King? The whole world watched that too. Where is justice for Breonna Taylor? Where is justice for fellow Minnesotan Philando Castile? Or Eric Garner or Michael Brown or…? None of those officers, and dozens more, have been brought to justice.
So, when the verdict was read, people could finally exhale. A whole range of emotions spilled forth – shouts of joy, expressions of disbelief, sobs of release, and tears – just tears without emotion. Some just felt numb. How are we supposed to feel? Was this supposed to bring some sense of satisfaction?
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison quickly reminded us that a guilty verdict was not enough for justice. As he said, "I would not call today's verdict justice, because that implies true restoration. But it is accountability, which is the first step towards justice, and now the cause of justice is in your hands."
I really resonated with that sentiment. That sounds like love in truth and action and not mere words or speech. Accountability.
But then a wise young man named Roshan Bliss made me question even that. Some of you know Roshan. He has spoken here during worship as part of the Denver Justice Project, one of our mission partners. Like many others, he also wrestled with questions about how he was supposed to feel and said, “I don’t think we’re even getting accountability. [Because,] in a deep sense, I don’t think our adversarial, punitive ‘justice’ system is even capable of that.”
And then he lays out the most beautiful description I’ve ever heard of what accountability could look like. He speaks with an incredible prophetic imagination just like the best of the biblical prophets. I told him I should start calling him Reverend Bliss.
Roshan said, “I think accountability would look more like Chauvin having to look George Floyd's family in the eyes - individually, one at a time - and tell them that he was wrong and that he's so, so sorry he took their loved one... and mean it.”
He said, “I think accountability would look more like Chauvin financially supporting George Floyd's 7-year-old daughter until she gets through college, at the least.” That’s prophetic imagination.
He said, “I think accountability would look more like Chauvin, for the rest of his life, having to stop whatever he was doing and listen, deeply listen, to family members whenever they were reminded of George or missing him and wanted to tell a story about him.” That’s prophetic imagination.
Roshan’s prophetic imagination draws upon the writings of Danielle Sered, founder of the group Common Justice. She said this: “In our culture, when we say accountability, we usually mean punishment. But the two are not only different, I actually believe that they’re not compatible… All we have to do to be punished is to not escape it. It’s doesn’t require anything in terms of our agency. It doesn’t require us to work at it. It doesn’t require us to acknowledge anything. It is something that is inflicted upon us by somebody else.”
“Accountability is different. Accountability is active. It requires that you acknowledge what you have done, that you acknowledge its impact on others, that you express genuine remorse, that you make things right to the degree possible, ideally in a way defined by those who were harmed, and that you do the extraordinary, hard labor of becoming someone who will never cause that kind of harm again.”
Therefore, Roshan said, in addition to looking each of George Floyd’s family members in the eyes with true remorse, paying for his daughter’s education, and stopping to listen any time he is asked, “I think accountability would look more like Chauvin having to go around the country telling other police officers about what he should have done differently, sharing the story of how he came to realize what he did was wrong, and supporting other officers to similarly take ownership of the harm they've caused, walking with them as they face the consequences and seek to make their own amends and personal transformations.” That’s prophetic imagination.
Roshan said, “I think accountability would look more like Chauvin doing hard, life-long work to make his name synonymous with the movement to end police violence or the fight to end the dominance of police unions that resist and thwart efforts to hold officers accountable.”
That’s prophetic imagination. And doesn’t that strike you as more like love in action and truth than merely speech or words? It’s incredibly hopeful, in a time that can feel hopeless. It's not to suggest that he not face time in prison, but that there are other remarkably redemptive ways to address crime and punishment.
However, he said, “that kind of accountability can't be forced on someone or handed down by a judge. Accountability is a decision that a person has to make for themselves. I don't think our system can support the real accountability I'm imagining because it's so structurally oriented toward punishment.”
Or as Ibram X Kendi says, so focused on compliance. He said he keeps having to confront the narrative that “If you comply with police orders, you won’t get shot.” Except if you’re sleeping or eating ice cream in your own apartment or sitting in a park or reading a book. A system that is not color blind but associates Black lives with guilt, danger, and criminality. Overly militarized. Ill equipped to address public health and safety issues, addiction crises, and other mental health issues. Frankly, called upon to do too much.
And yet this morning, may we not dare hope that this verdict will be the first conviction, not the last, the beginning that forces a reckoning and opens the door to the kind of prophetic and hopeful imagination that could lead from punishment to accountability to true justice. I hold onto hope that step by step there is a way to move from words about love into love found in action and in truth.
As we hear in 1st John, if we follow Jesus, the Jesus whose love for humanity was ultimately expressed in his sacrifice; this fully human Jesus shows us the way to love one another.
 Gail O’Day, The Women’s Bible Commentary, Westminster/John Knox, 1992, p. 374
I love being the