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Accountability Is An Act of Love

The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield

The reading from 2 Thessalonians makes me think of a man I knew when I was working as a street chaplain in San Francisco. I got to know him at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church where I spent some of my time. St. John’s hosts an organization called The Gubbio Project, where people can come to the church to rest and sleep safely every weekday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Trevor lived on the streets of the Mission District. Everything he owned fit into two big bags that he carried with him everywhere. He came to St. John’s every day and set up his sleeping bag in a snug corner where he slept. But around 9 a.m. he got up and helped the staff set up coffee and snacks for everyone. Then he’d go rest again. At around noon, he got up again, put his stuff away, and then headed to the kitchen where he washed all the dishes and cleaned up. After Gubbio closed for the day, he stuck around and helped the staff and volunteers sweep and mop the floor. We came to rely on him.

Many folks who rested in the church during the week also attended worship on Sundays. I so happened to be doing my internship for ordination there, so I got to see them as part of that community, too. And they got to see me preach and help lead worship, which was cool. Trevor was one of those people.

And wouldn’t you know it, Trevor got to worship early to set up coffee hour and then he stayed late after service to clean up.

I mention Trevor because I think who he is and how he moves in the world complicates an oversimplified reading of our scripture from 2 Thessalonians.

Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.

Some might see Trevor on the street, sitting on the sidewalk, his back against a wall, his two giant bags at his side, and they may think, “Why won’t he work?” They don’t know what I know: that Trevor is a veteran who has some pretty serious PTSD from his time in combat in Afghanistan. That he has a hard time staying focused, which makes it difficult for him to apply for jobs let alone go through the complicated process of getting his benefits. They don’t know that his PTSD triggers deep dissociation or intense outbursts that make it hard for him to hold down a job.

At Gubbio, and during worship at St. John’s, we made space for Trevor however he showed up. When he dissociated, we found a safe space for him and let him be. When he had an outburst, we found a place for him away from everyone, and I would sit with him until he found himself again. But a lot of the world, a lot of employers, a lot of landlords don’t have that kind of patience, that kind of compassion.

Trevor showed up day after day. He set up the coffee and snacks. He cleaned up after coffee hour. He gave what he could to his communities.

That’s what the writer of Thessalonians is talking about: showing up to our communities and giving what we have to give.

Not judging those who, on first glance, are idle, not doing any work. Not making assumptions about those whose stories we don’t really know. After all, just last week, Jesus said in the gospel, Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry now. Over and over again, Jesus and his Jewish scriptures call us to be there for people in need. Which is all of us sometimes.

Instead, the writer of Thessalonians is asking, How do you show up for the community you claim as your own and who claims you as their own? Because that’s who the writer was talking to: a community of believers in Thessalonica committed to one another through Christ.

That’s what Trevor did. He showed up for his community in the ways he could, and his community showed up for him. The kind of community we foster as Christians is the kind that seeks to know one another. To understand what each of us has to give as well as what kind of support each of us needs. To trust one another enough to be vulnerable. And, yes, to hold one another accountable.

Holding one another accountable is an act of love. It says to someone, “What you give to this community is essential, and we struggle when you say you’re going to show up in a particular way and you don’t.”

It reminds me of our dear Richard, who died in 2020. He was the first to show up to church on Sundays and served as our greeter for every worship. I relied on him to make sure the Narthex and pews were in good order, to train other greeters.

If he didn’t show up, I was a little lost, to be honest. And the few times he didn’t, I would check on him. Because, a) I was worried, but also b) if I didn’t, Richard would rib me the following Sunday, saying, “Didn’t you miss me?” and then ask if the greeters did their job right.

He wanted to be relied on. And I didn’t realize just how much I did rely on him until after he was gone. And don’t we all want to be relied on? To be told that what we have to give is important and that things are a little off—or maybe a lot off—when we don’t show up?

At its best, at its most loving, holding people accountable tells them that their presence and gifts are essential, that they belong. And when we don’t hold someone accountable, we’re telling them that what they give isn’t important to our community.

Some communities' central concern is figuring out who is in and who is out. Their primary work is converting people to the “correct” way of being, telling them that they need to show up in a very particular way in order to belong. They need to dress in a particular way. Believe in a particular way. They shouldn’t be disruptive. They should be helpful, but only in a particular way. Men help with the audio and tech setup while women set up coffee hour.

Trevor, who showed up in the clothes he slept in, who often wondered if God even existed, who sometimes started shouting when his PTSD was triggered, would not have been welcome in such communities, at least not as he was.

But I think Christian community is about how we recognize that each and every one of us is already essential to the Body of Christ, as we are, however we show up. Christian community is about making space for discovering what each of our gifts are, nurturing those gifts, and figuring out a way for all of us to live into those gifts within our community. And it’s about holding one other accountable to how we’ve each committed to sharing our gifts.

That’s how we love each other.

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