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
“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
“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
“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
(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 desease thay 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.
Barbara Brown Taylor,
Speaking of Sin, p. 64.
Earl actually says, “…then wonders why his life
I tried it out loud a couple of times, but eventually
decided not to use that word from the pulpit.
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
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.”
Taylor, Speaking of
Sin, pp. 54-55.