Wednesday, 24 September 2008 15:58

September 21, 2008 Sermon

“Imagine Accountability”
Romans 14:1-12
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
September 21, 2008
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

We are imagining a world.  This is the focus for our season.  We did this as we welcomed our sister church.  We will do this as we prepare for the upcoming elections.  We will do this by looking with new eyes upon the makeup and condition of our world.

We all want a world with justice, peace, creativity and freedom.  But in order to do this, we have to have accountability.  When we do something, there are consequences.  Sometimes they are positive, other times they are not.  We have responsibilities to ourselves, to our community and to God.   Without accountability, it seems we can get away with anything for a while.  But avoiding a problem will eventually catch up to you.  It’s better toi be accountable now than after it gets worse.  In order to imagine the world we want we need to have accountability.

Who’s responsible for 9/11?  

For the financial crisis?  

For the way children go bad?  

For the successes and failures of life?  

We know plenty of folk who take the credit when things go right and shift the blame when things go wrong.

Sure there are things we control.  

There are policies that are enacted that set in motion chains of events from wars to deregulation to under-funding schools to supporting dictatorships to ensure property rights at the expense of human rights.  

There are decisions about bridge safety and global warming and acid rain and tax policy.  
This is a season of blame and trying to figure out who is accountable.  We want to know who to blame so we can figure out how to fix it, or at least vote out those who broke it in the first place.  

I attended a continuing education seminary this past Friday in Rochester, NY.  Dr. Kristin Leslie from Yale Divinity School spoke about how we don’t hold people accountable for the things that they say, especially if they use religious language.  She said, “Religious language can make policy matters outside of discussion.  When someone makes a religious declaration, i.e “I believe that Jesus is my Lord and Savior and I’m sorry if that offends you,” it is seldom challenged for fear of appearing intolerant of another’s religion.  But it also shuts down the deeper discussion because a disagreement is seen as a critique against God or religion.”  She says that we are to pay attention to religious language.  When it’s used in public discourse, it’s often used to end a discussion, not begin one.  

Let me give you an example.  In the midst of the early Iraq war, a general stood in the pulpit of his church in his military uniform.  He said that the mission of the war is to prove that our God is more powerful than the God of Islam.  He said that he was simply stating his religious beliefs.  And yet, he was also violating the law.  When a general is in uniform, he speaks for the military.  He was using religious language in clear violation of the separation of church and state.  And yet, he was not held accountable for that.  Could it be because we don’t want to be seen as intolerant of religion?  Is it okay to be intolerant of another religion and tolerant of the religious right’s brand of Christianity?

Dr. Leslie said that accountability includes bringing the pastoral wisdom which we pastors ought to have into the public arena.  We can’t cede the religious language to the religious right.  We can’t let them use religious language to close down discussion.

The apostle Paul spoke about accountability.  

In today’s scripture, Paul is addressing yet another tendency of church people to be judgmental of those who are different than themselves. Paul admonishes people to not care so much about what their sister and brother does or how they live their lives. He says we are to all be ultimately accountable to God.  It’s pretty darn convenient of Paul to say that we are to not worry about anyone else’s opinions, because it’s all about our personal relationship with God.

Doesn’t that seem just a bit too individualistic? And yet, we all know what happens when folk make themselves out to be judge and jury.

We know that we are ultimately accountable to God, but what does that look like?

Folks in recovery know that our addicted world seeks to avoid accountability.  We shift blame onto others.  We blame a chemical or another person or we simply consume to numb ourselves and avoid reality.  But a person in recovery will also tell you that it is the very embracing of accountability that helps steer them to a more healthy life.  Folks in recovery need to make a fearless moral inventory and then try to make amends with all of the people they have wronged.  It’s the only way to health.  And it requires accountability.

Maybe accountability to God is how we are accountable to God’s people.  Maybe being accountable to God is not so much about our own individual spirituality.  Maybe it’s about how we are doing justice loving mercy and walking humbly with God.  Justice not just us.  Mercy—as in compassion, caring, steadfast love.  Not steadfast suspicion.  Walking humbly with God.  Humbly, not haughtily.

What I know of Lee Freeman is that he always made you think in his preaching.  He was not so interested in making you believe as he did.  He was interested in making sure that we were accountable to God.  We are to make our own decisions about faith and life.  We are to have the right and responsibility to think for ourselves and approach a faithful and relevant life with fear and trembling.  

He chose the music for today’s service.  He said that he wanted his ashes scattered in the Mississippi River, except for a pinch in the UBC boiler room.  He also said that at his funeral he wanted people to remember “the ambiguities and uncertainties inherent in our faith.”  He also said to tell you that “the adventure of life is not knowing the answers, but in asking good hard questions!”  

Lee was all about accountability.

I imagine him having a field day with the recent financial crisis.  The government has focused on deregulating financial institutions and mortgage companies.  As a result they have made huge profits while people have paid increasing prices for them.  But now that they are losing money, they are not being held accountable.  They are bailed out by the very government that made them so rich.  Is no one being held accountable?  

The pundits are saying that this is the most significant governmental program since the New Deal.  So much for small government and low taxes.  We will be paying for the war and the bailout for years and so will our children.  They say it will cost each of us $2000.  This is on top of the war that will cost each of us another $2000.  Who’s being held accountable?
Lee would have his opinions and so would I.  But I’ll take a page out of Lee Freeman’s accountability playbook.  Think for yourselves.  Be accountable to God.  But also be accountable to yourself and be accountable to each other.  

Imagine a world where all of us are accountable.  
Imagine a world where accountability is evenly distributed.  
Imagine that when police overstep their bounds, they are held accountable.
Imagine when people bring us into an illegal war, they are held accountable.
Imagine a world where when people play the race card or the sex card or the sexuality card they are held accountable.  
Imagine when people play the religion card that they are held accountable and none of us take religious pronouncements at face value.  We hold people accountable for a religion that is about justice and love and mercy and compassion.  

We are accountable to God and we’re accountable to each other.

Here’s something to ponder:  When Jean and Char and I were in Rochester this weekend I was sitting next to a big poster describing how to build a global Community.  It was put out by Syracuse Cultural Workers.  It expresses some fine strategies for imagining a world where accountability is a central piece to our healing as a world.  Here is what it said.


  • Think of no one as "them"    
  • Don't confuse your comfort with your safety    
  • Talk to strangers    
  • Imagine other cultures through their poetry and novels    
  • Listen to music you don't understand    
  • Dance to it 
  • Act locally
  •  Notice the workings of power and privilege in your culture    
  • Question consumption    
  • Know how your lettuce and coffee are grown: wake up and smell the exploitation    
  • Look for fair trade and union labels    
  • help build economies from the bottom up    
  • Acquire few needs    
  • Learn a second (or third) language    
  • Visit people, places and cultures -- not tourist attractions    
  • Learn people's history    
  • Re-define progress    
  • Know physical and political geography    
  • Play games from other cultures    
  • Watch films with subtitles    
  • Know your heritage    
  • Honor everyone's holidays    
  • Look at the moon and imagine someone else, somewhere else, looking at it too    
  • Read the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights    
  • Understand the global economy in terms of people, land and water    
  • Know where your bank banks    
  • Never believe you have a right to anyone else's resources    
  • Refuse to wear corporate logos: defy corporate domination    
  • Question military/corporate connections    
  • Don't confuse money with wealth, or time with money    
  • Have a pen/email pal    
  • Honor indigenous cultures    
  • Judge governance by how well it meets all people's needs    
  • Be skeptical about what you read    
  • Eat adventurously    
  • Enjoy vegetables, beans and grains in your diet    
  • Choose curiosity over certainty    
  • know where your water comes from and where your wastes go    
  • Pledge allegiance to the earth: question nationalism    
  • Think South, Central and North -- there are many Americans    
  • Assume that many others share your dreams    
  • Know that no one is silent though many are not heard    
  • Work to change this.

Sisters and brothers, be accountable to yourselves. 

Be accountable to each other.  

Be accountable to God.  

And if you will, imagine with God a world that we could build together.  When we do that, we are approaching a world of peace, justice, mercy compassion and blessing.  

Imagine that.  

I think people who can imagine a world of accountability can create the community of hope that we so desperately need.  It’s here in this room.  It’s in the spirit of the could of witnesses that have gone before us.  

And wherever they are, I believe they imagine us as accountable for our actions, our faithfulness and our commitment to the world we seek.  May we live our lives filled with wonder, filled with hope, filled with blessing and filled with a sense that we are accountable for a vision and a power beyond us that can hopefully restore us to sanity.