Speaking of Sin: Penance
You and I, we don’t know how to talk about sin. The whole concept makes us uncomfortable.
We’ve been making that case every Sunday this Lent, but if you aren’t yet convinced all you needed to do this week was turn on NPR to see the reaction Pope Francis got when he was presiding over mass at St. Peter’s Basilica on Friday. When it came time in the service to hear confessions, instead of hearing the confessions of other priests there, the Pope himself turned his back to the congregation, went and made his own confession to a priest—just like everybody else.
Why would this make the news? It’s because a public recognition of sin is so rare; we don’t often talk about it. We don’t have sufficient words; we’d prefer to avoid the topic altogether; and if we don’t succeed at that, when we do speak of sin, we usually don’t even ask the right questions.
Perhaps this very thing is what we’re meant to take away from the story in John’s gospel today, when Jesus heals a man blind from birth and sends the disciples, the crowd and the religious leaders into heated controversy about the theology and practicality of sin and repentance.
In the culture Jesus lived, physical disability, such as blindness, was an indication of sin. It was easy to understand, clear to everybody. If you suffer a disability…or an injustice or an accident or some misfortune, well, that’s an indication that you have messed up, and God—or someone in the realm of the universe—is punishing you. It’s very clear, straightforward, easy to understand. The sinners are on God’s bad list; the good people live the sweet life.
When Jesus heals the blind man in John chapter nine, the first thing the disciples want to know is: “who sinned?” Who sinned and made this man blind?
The way Jesus responds illumines the crowd’s—and maybe our—skewed way of thinking about sin. Here’s the beginning of the passage, in The Message translation: Walking down the street, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?” Jesus said, “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do.”
Today’s sin word is penance, and if there’s any theological sin word that calls to mind cause and effect, this one might be it. We think of penance as payment—something we do to make up for a wrong we’ve committed. In our limited Protestant understanding, we consider penance to be an outdated relic from the Middle Ages, some priest telling us what we have to do, or pay, in order to receive absolution. Penance: what do I have to do to make up for what I’ve done wrong?
On this matter, Jesus might say to us, “You’re asking the wrong question.”
Penance is not making up for what we did, bringing things back to the way they were before we sinned. Penance is moving ourselves ever and always toward healed relationship with God and with each other.
If repentance is stopping in our tracks and determining to take another direction, then penance is the walking.
I realized this week that Barbara Brown Taylor’s thoughts about penance are more eloquent than any I could compose; as such, most of the rest of the sermon comes from her book, Speaking of Sin. She writes: “By the time apartheid officially ended in 1990, black and white South Africans had several ways to proceed. They could each try to throw the other out of the country through terrorism or outright revolution. They could use the laws that were in place to prosecute one another. Or they could seek peace.
In most places, as you know, peace means little more than cessation of hostilities. Each side agrees to stop waging war on the other, but transforming their relationship with one another is not usually part of the agenda. In South Africa, however, a larger vision took hold. Under the leadership of Desmond Tutu, with the strong backing of the South Africa Council of Churches, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up as a way that might allow former enemies to live together in peace.
That way has involved people from both sides standing up in front of other people and confessing the horrible things they have done….What is more, all of these sinners have confessed their sins in the presence of their victims families, so they can see on those people’s faces the full impact of what they have done. The hope embedded in this process is a simple one: that truth has power to set people free.
And yet, there are consequences to our actions. I was fascinated to speak with a Hindu colleague of mine about the concept of karma in her faith. ‘Every human choice has moral fallout,’ she explained. ‘If you harm me, then there will be consequences for you as well as for me. You may have a change of heart later and ask me to forgive you, but even if I forgive you from the bottom of my heart, I cannot change your karma. You made a choice, which has had its effect. Eventually you, too, will experience its full effect.’
This is a scary idea for some Christians, who like to think of forgiveness as a giant eraser on the blackboard of life…. [But] forgiveness is a starting place, not a stopping place. It is God’s gift to those who wish to begin again, but where we go with that is up to us. Most of us prefer remorse to repentance. We would rather feel badly about the damage we have done than get estimates on the cost of repair. We would rather learn to live with guilt than face the hard work of new life.
While penance has all but disappeared from our vocabulary it was once the church’s best tool for getting over that hump. 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 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. Penance was repair. Penance was a way back into relationship, but like all other good spiritual practices, it was vulnerable to corruption. In some places it became routine and trivialized. In others it became a means of extortion. When the Protestant reformers rebelled against certain aspects of Catholic theology and practice, penance was one of the babies that was thrown out with the bath water. It smacked of works righteousness, the reformers said. It was ripe for abuse. It undercut grace.
One consequence of its disappearance, however, is that we have lost this very powerful way of living into our repentance. As a result, many of us have learned to substitute words for actions. We say that we are sorry for our faults. Jesus says that he forgives us, and that is supposed to be that. Bygones are supposed to be bygones, but you know it is not true.
As admirable as South Africa’s efforts at national repentance have been, it now appears that confession and pardon alone are not enough. When Lucas Sekwepere testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996, he told them how he had been shot in the face by a white policeman ten years earlier. After he was blinded, he said, he was tortured for information. One night his captors put a bag over his head, twisting it tighter and tighter until he was sure he would suffocate. Another night they led him to a cemetery, where they dropped him in an open grave and threatened to bury him alive. Asked how he felt about testifying, he said, “I feel what has been making me sick all the time is the fact that I couldn’t tell my story. But now it feels like I got my sight back, by coming here and telling you the story.”
Four years later, he continues to live in darkness. After he testified, he understood that a doctor would examine him, if only to remove the bullet fragments still embedded in his face. He expected he might receive job training so that he could work. He hoped to hear of some change in his squalid neighborhood once apartheid had ended, but so far the only reparation he has received is a government check for $700. “Not much,” he says, “for someone who has been hungry for fifteen years.”
Meanwhile, more than six hundred perpetrators have been granted amnesty in South Africa. Full disclosure is all the commission required of them. Once they had publicly confessed their sins, they were free to go. Two years after the conclusion of the hearings, more and more victims are doubting that there can be any lasting peace without justice. Unless those who suffered see real material transformation in their lives, warns Tutu, “you can kiss reconciliation goodbye.”
[R]epentance is not complete until confession and pardon lead to penance that allows immunity to be restored. Archbishop Tutu’s insistence on real material transformation is not a surrender of spiritual values. Instead, it is evidence of this faith in Christ’s incarnation, which shows us how much flesh and blood matter to God. Salvation is not offered to us as some kind of metaphysical prize. It is offered to us in our bodies as God’s manifest power to change human lives. While Jesus may have done the hardest work for us, some of us still long for a way both to engage the consequences of our sin and to have a hand in repairing the damage we have done. We want to participate in our own redemption instead of sitting in a lawn chair while Jesus does all the work. We want to be agents of God’s grace.
Just for a lark, imagine going to your pastor and confessing your rampant materialism, your devotion to things instead of people, and your isolation from the poor whom Jesus loved. Then imagine being forgiven and given your penance: to select five of your favorite things—including perhaps your Bose radio and your new Coach book bag—and to match them up with five people who you know would turn cartwheels to have them. Then on Saturday, put your lawn mower in your trunk, drive down to that transitional neighborhood where all the old people live and offer to move lawns for free until dark. Discerning sinners will note that none of this is standard punishment. It is penance, which is not for the purpose of inflicting pain but for the much higher purpose of changing lives by restoring relationships.
Something like that might really get my attention. I might begin to understand that repentance means more than saying “I’m sorry” and that God’s grace requires more of me than singing every verse of “Just As I Am.”
Penance is the acceptance of responsibility for repair, and it is one of the most healing things a repentant sinner can do, as well as one of the most painful. While it may look like our own work, I do not think it is. Like the wake-up call to confession and the pardon that is offered, penance, too, is God’s gift—as we find strength and courage we know we do not have to take measurable steps in the direction of new life.
That life is its own reward, but true repentance promises us more. It promises us reunion with God and one another. It promises us restoration to community, and to all the responsibilities that go along with life in relationship. Some of our old communities will not take us back, as many of you have discovered. That is simply part of the karma of sin. But God’s pardon, which we received so long ago, arrived with it the promise of new community—not stainless steel Christians who never bend or break, but a community of repentant sinners who know that the work of transformation is never done.”
What do we have to do to repay, to get back in God’s good graces after we sin? Jesus might say that’s the wrong question. We’ve said that sin is separation—from God and from each other. Penance is making our way back toward relationship; it’s the motion of repentance.
Oscar Wilde, poet and playwright of the 19th century, wrote, “Never forget, every saint has a past, and every sinner a future.”
Penance is the way we move toward that future.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin.