A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.
March 30, 2014
The Fourth Sunday in Lent
For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (NRSV).
I hadn’t really thought about it before last week, but in this series on “Taking Sin Seriously” I have talked about missing the mark, taking the wrong trail, and causing my GPS to “recalculate.” It makes me think there is something about sin that will get you lost, and something about salvation that will get you found. In fact the story I told two weeks ago about my hiking trip can serve as a useful analogy: 1) I got off the right path; 2) I got into trouble; 3) I admitted I was wrong; 4) I turned around; 5) I made my way back to the fork; and 6) I took the right path. If you have ears to hear it, it’s the story of sin, suffering, confession, repentance, penance, and salvation. Today we’re going to talk about step five in that process—penance—which may be the most overlooked step of all.
Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal priest who was named by Baylor University (a Baptist institution) as one of the most effective preachers in the English-speaking world. She is not only a great preacher; she is also a gifted scholar who has a wonderful way with words. Listen to what she says about the word penance: “While penance has all but disappeared from our vocabulary, it was once the church’s best tool for getting over the hump [of sin]. Once a person had confessed her sins and received assurance of pardon, she voluntarily took on specific acts of penance, which were baby steps in the direction of a new life. If she had stolen vegetables from a neighbor’s garden, then she might volunteer to weed the garden every other day for a month. If she had slandered someone, then she might revisit all the households where she had done that and set the record straight. Penance was not punishment,” Taylor says. “Penance was repair.”[i]
And that’s not easy for us.
Earlier in that same section of her book, Speaking of Sin, Barbara Brown Taylor says, “We would rather feel badly about the damage we have done than get estimates on the cost of repair.” And that’s true, isn’t it? I borrowed a friend’s car in college once and backed it into a utility pole by mistake. I pointed it out when I took the car back. I said I was sorry. But I never did offer to get that tiny little dent fixed. And when I took the wrong trail on that hike, and led my backpacking partners astray, as hard as it was to admit that I was wrong it was easier to do that than to turn around and start hiking back to that place where I had made the mistake. But that’s what we had to do: hike back to that spot, more than a mile away, and take the right trail. It was the only way to get where we were going. And every step of the way was an act of penance.
That word reminds me of a television show I watch sometimes. I’m not proud of it, but I do. It’s a situation comedy called “My Name Is Earl.” At the beginning of those early episodes Earl would introduce himself by saying, “You know the kind of guy who does nothing but bad things then wonders why his life [is so messed up]?[ii] Well, that was me. Every time something good happened to me something bad was always waiting around the corner. Karma.[iii] That’s when I realized I had to change. So I made a list of all the bad things I’ve done and, one by one, I’m going to make up for all my mistakes. I’m just trying to be a better person; my name is Earl.”
“I’m just trying to be a better person,” Earl says, but unlike some of us, he is actually doing something about it. He’s made a list of his mistakes and, one by one, he’s going to make up for them. Although Greg Garcia, the creator of the show, never comes right out and says it, my hunch is that the inspiration for the show came from Alcoholics Anonymous, where people share their stories by saying something like, “My name is Earl, and I’m an alcoholic.” And then everybody says, “Hi, Earl,” to let him know he is accepted just as he is. That’s a good starting point. But he isn’t supposed to stay just as he is, he’s supposed to change, and he does it by working through the Twelve Steps. In Earl’s case, Step 8 seems especially relevant. It says, “[We] made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.” And Step 9 says, “[We] made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” In a nutshell, that’s what “My Name Is Earl” is all about.
In one episode, Earl tries to make amends for letting Donny Jones do jail time for a crime he had committed. He goes to Donny’s house, sits down on the couch, and says,
“Listen, Donny. I’m on kind of a mission. I’ve recently discovered Karma, and I’ve written a list of all the bad things I’ve done in my life and I’m trying to make up for them.” (Donny nods his head).
“I think I know what you’re getting at, Earl. You had an awakening. Same thing happened to me in the joint when I found Jesus (Donny pulls up his shirt and shows Earl a huge tattoo of Jesus on his chest). About a month into my sentence I started reading the Bible, and it really kept me out of trouble. Ever since I found the Lord I really turned my life around. Prison turned out to be a blessing in disguise!” (Earl is surprised).
“So, you’re not mad that you were mistakenly incarcerated for a crime some…unknown person committed?” (Donny shakes his head).
“I didn’t rob that store, Earl, but we both know I was a sinner. Besides, as the Good Book says, forgiveness is the way of salvation” (Earl looks relieved).
“So, you’re all churched up then, huh? Good for you. Giving up all that hurting people?” (Donny nods).
“I turn the other cheek now” (Earl fidgets for a moment and then says):
“I do need to tell you something, something I did to you that’s on my list, something that turned out to be good for you but, all the same, something that was wrong. I was the one that robbed that donut store” (Donny looks shocked).
(Earl explains): “It was me, Donny. I was wearing a shirt that I stole from you. I’m the reason you went to prison (Donny’s eyes start to go kind of crazy and Earl adds, quickly) …and found the Lord! Went to prison and found the Lord!”
(Speaking off-camera Earl says): “Even though Donny had changed, I was scared, because no matter who he was now, he used to be crazy.” In the long silence that follows his confession Earl whispers to Donny, “What would Jesus do?” Donny looks down his T-shirt at the tattoo and asks, “What would you do?” And then he looks up with a smile and says, “I forgive you.
“Like I said before, Earl, prison changed my life. I mean even if you hadn’t done what you did I probably would have ended up there anyway. Cross me off your list.”
He stands and shakes hands with Earl, and then his mother whacks Earl over the head with the family Bible, because even if Donny forgave him, she didn’t.
But good for Earl! For trying to make things right with someone he had done wrong. I don’t think we do nearly enough of that in the church, and Barbara Brown Taylor has some thoughts about why that is. She says: “It is easy for me to think of churches that operate like clinics, where sin-sick patients receive sympathetic care for the disease they all share. It is palliative care, for the most part. No one expect anyone to be fully cured, which is why there is not much emphasis on individual sin. Such churches subscribe a kind of no-fault theology in which no one is responsible because everyone is.
“It is also easy for me to think of churches that operate like courts, where both sins and sinners are named out loud, along with punishments appropriate to their crimes. On the whole, the sinners identified by this full-fault theology tend to be people who do not belong to the fold, but I do know of one church that calls pregnant, unmarried teenagers up before the congregation to be publicly rebuked.
“True repentance will not serve either of these purposes. It will not work in the church-as-clinic because repentance will not make peace with sin. Instead, it calls individuals to take responsibility for what is wrong with the world—beginning with what is wrong with them—and to join with other people who are dedicated to turning things around. True repentance will not work in the church-as-courtroom either, because it is not interested in singling out scapegoats and punishing them. Instead, it calls whole communities to engage in the work of repair and reconciliation without forgetting their own culpability for the way things are. If individual sinners are called to account, then it iss never for the purpose of harming or humiliating them, but always with the goal of restoring them to life.
“Bent as we are either on excusing sin or pounding it into the ground, it is no wonder that a third kind of church is so hard to find—not church-as-clinic nor church-as-courtroom, but church as community-of-transformation, where members are expected and supported to be about the business of new life.”[iv]
I mentioned it earlier, but one such community is Alcoholics Anonymous. Taylor says she says she once visited an AA group that met in the basement of a Presbyterian church. She writes: “I was there at the invitation of a young man who was celebrating his second year of sobriety. Two years earlier he almost died when he wrecked his car while he was driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Luckily for him, his sentence included a rehabilitation program and a long period of parole during which he became an active member of AA.
“The night I was there,” she says, “his parents were, too, along with his younger brother. For one hour we all sat in a room with people who were dedicated to the work of transformation. The young man spoke frankly about his self-destructiveness, his former deception of his friends and family, and the strong temptation he sometimes felt to go back to the way things were. The other people in the room nodded knowingly. A few even reminded him of some sordid things he had done that he had left out of his narrative. More than once, I wanted to jump up and clap my hands over his mother’s ears—not because anyone was saying anything mean about her or her son, but simply because they were speaking the truth in her presence.” Taylor adds: “If you are an AA member yourself, then you know that is one of the reasons you keep going back: because there are so few places in the world where people agree to tell the truth like that, and where the truth works the miracle of change.”[v]
Alcoholics Anonymous is “dedicated to the work of transformation,” as Taylor says, but its members don’t believe they can change themselves. Step 1 says, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” Step 2 says, “[We] came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Step 3 says, “[We] made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.” This is what saves AA from becoming just another form of works-righteousness: a feeble attempt to save ourselves through our own efforts. The members of AA know that they are powerless to change on their own, that they need some help, and that only God as they understand him can help them. But they also believe they can change.
Which is good news for those of us in Sinners Anonymous.
Here we are, not in a clinic or a courtroom, but in a community of transformation. We call it the church, and it ought to be one of those places where we could stand up and say, “My name is Jim, and I’m a sinner,” and everybody could say, “Hi, Jim.” It ought to be a place where we could admit that we are powerless over sin: try as we might to stop ourselves we seem to just keep doing it. We need help, and the kind of help we need can only come from God. But with God’s help we can begin to change. We can make a list of the things we’ve done wrong, the people we’ve done wrong, and little by little we can work to make things right. We really can live better lives than we used to live. We really can be better people than we used to be. As the author of Ephesians says, “Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light!” He seems to believe that it’s possible, with God’s help. So, do it! You can start this afternoon. Make a list of your wrongs and start setting them right. That’s called penance, and it’s what we do when we care enough about God and others to restore our wrecked relationships. We get an estimate on the damage, and then, with God’s help,
We begin the work of repair.
[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin, p. 64.
[ii] Earl actually says, “…then wonders why his life sucks?” I tried it out loud a couple of times, but eventually decided not to use that word from the pulpit.
[iii] Wikipedia (pardon the source) informs me that, “Karma means action, work or deed; it also refers to the principle of causality where intent and actions of an individual influence the future of that individual.” I didn’t think about it until after the sermon was completed, but when Jesus’ disciples ask him “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” they appeal to a kind of karma-esque theology, where “what goes around, comes around.”
[iv] Taylor, Speaking of Sin, pp. 54-55.
[v] Ibid., pp. 56-57.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.