The Wages of Sin
Thomas Penn Johnson
By the time he reached the summer of his twenty-first year Tommy Hunt was one of the most popular public speakers in his city. In ninth grade he was asked by a classmate to be the speaker for Youth Day at Bass Chapel Methodist Church. Even then his speaking abilities had already brought him to the attention of his schoolmates who had elected him president of the student body. After that Youth Sunday at Bass Chapel, a little church out in the country, Tommy was invited to be Youth Sunday speaker at almost all the black churches in town, excepting his own.
It wasn’t quite kosher according to Synodical rules, Tommy being still in pre-theological studies and not yet a full-fledged seminarian, but Pastor Studtman that summer asked Tommy to conduct services for him on one of the two Sundays he would be gone on vacation and to assist old Pastor Layman with communion on the other.
The Sunday when Thomas Sabourin Hunt was to deliver his first sermon at his home church, Luther Memorial Lutheran Church, was not an event that would escape the notice of Tommy’s peers and family. The whole black community of churchgoers took as a given the existence of what was known as a called preacher’s trial sermon. It was the day that the preacher became legitimate, as opposed to being a jackleg, or self-appointed preacher. It was widely assumed that that sermon would be the first one the preacher preached at his home congregation.
Despite the fact that congregations in the Lutheran synod of which Luther Memorial was a member did not have a trial sermon custom, nor did they interpret “being called” to mean what Methodists, Baptists, and Pentecostals understood it to mean, word of Tommy Hunt’s preaching at Luther Memorial had spread like wildfire amongst those who had heard Tommy speak in the past. Even a modest Tommy Hunt would have to admit that he expected Luther Memorial would be filled to capacity at the appointed time.
When the Sunday came around Tommy knew that he was ready. The many strangers to the Lutheran liturgy who would be there would hear a thoroughly Lutheran sermon—in doctrine and homiletic style. Tommy’s friends from churches like Bethel AME Zion, Institutional Baptist, Shiloh Baptist, New Light Baptist, Wells Temple, and Bass Chapel expected sermons to be motivational; they expected instruction by visitation of the Holy Ghost in frenzy, and they anticipated that sermons would inspire them to raise a joyful noise to God. The Lutheran style was more like a lecture, moral instruction to come by exhaustive exegesis of a chosen Scriptural text. Tommy was an exceptional scholar; and his approach to exegesis was to aim at the heart of the matter—a concern to which he devoted a great deal of prayer. With a carefully written sermon manuscript under his arm Tommy arrived at Luther Memorial that July Sunday an hour before the start of the service.
Tommy mainly wanted some quiet time in the church office to meditate and reread his sermon, he wanted to have it almost committed to memory; so he entered the sanctuary through the narthex and walked the length of the nave towards the office which was located north of the chancel. He knew that everyone would be attending Sunday School. He simply hadn’t thought of Abby Wolf who on Sundays was as much a fixture in the sanctuary as was the pulpit itself.
Abby Wolf didn’t do a lot of talking. For thirty years she, the oldest Lutheran convert in the county, had voluntarily, and without pay, taken on maid’s duties at Luther Memorial. She was Luther Memorial’s one-woman maid and altar guild. She dusted every pew every Sunday and took care of the chancel and altar, sometimes on communion Sundays with the help of the Swygart sisters or Miss Crawford (one of those church ladies with no apparent first name). Abby Wolf attended no meetings, but no one could recall a Sunday in the last thirty years when she and all her children and grandchildren did not occupy the second and third pews, pulpit side.
Abby Wolf was an anomaly: she was pure-in-heart Lutheran and African. Her Lutheran faith meant everything to her, and, most un-Lutheran like, she was a handclapping communicant. She was the only handclapping worshipper at Luther Memorial.
As he walked down the center aisle Tommy noticed Abby dusting away at the pews, and, of course, he greeted her: “Good Morning Mrs. Wolf.” Their families were connected by marriage, Tommy’s mother’s older late sister had been married to Abby’s oldest son, also deceased. To Tommy’s surprise, Abby stopped what she was doing and came over to Tommy, patting his arm continuously she said: “Marvin Graeber done brought in those bulletins sittin’ on the first pew yonder, and I see where you’re gonna be preaching for us this morning! And just yesterday you was just one of dem Vacation Bible School children running through the halls and hiding in the classroom closets! Just think! Your grandmother would have been so proud! And you never knew your granddaddy, Pastor Sabourin, but I knew him, best preacher we ever had, and I can tell you he would have been as proud as he could be! God bless you, son!” It was the most talking that Tommy ever heard Abby Wolf do.
Just then James Turner appeared in the narthex. He was the president of the congregation and the head usher—he, Frank Allen, and Pastor Studtman were the only men who handled the collection plates on Sundays. He was looking for the Sunday bulletins which Marvin Graeber customarily dropped off in the narthex. From the rear of the church he spoke out to Abby and Tommy: “Excuse my interruption, Mrs. Wolf, but have you seen Marvin Graeber this morning?”
She answered: “He brung those bulletins like he said, I had him set them down here in the front ‘cause I still need to dust out there.” She was pointing towards the first pew, lectern side.
When James Turner reached where Tommy was standing, Abby was pleased to point out the situation: “Did you know that your godson here is preaching for us this morning?”
“Well, well, well, well, well! I surely didn’t, but I am mighty pleased to hear it.” Simultaneously Mr. Turner reached wide around to slap Tommy’s hand in a feisty congratulatory handshake. Abby returned to her dusting, leaving the two men to linger on for a moment longer. “So, young man, you have some big shoes to fill today, we have had a lot of great preachers in that pulpit yonder. Pastor Studtman is one of the best! Old Professor Gherke, he is a smart one, but I think Professor Rogahn is the smartest. Of course you got those professor types like old Professor Pennycamp and the reverend Mister Creer, who might have something to say for all anybody can tell, but sure as shootin’, their delivery will put you to sleep.”
James Turner was a tough old bird—he worked longer and harder than anyone else, he thought harder about church matters than anyone else, and in all things he was as reliable as the Rock of Gibraltar. And when it came to critique of sermons, suffice it to say that if serious flaws of any kind were apparent in a sermon delivered at Luther Memorial, the preacher was certain to hear about it from James Turner.
“Of course,” Mister Turner continued, “for content, delivery, and general wisdom, they just don’t come no better than your grandfather. A pity you never knew Pastor Sabourin, boy. Well, I’ll stop in at the office at 10:45.”
Tommy responded: “Mister, Turner, if you see Miss Thompson, please show her the misprint in the bulletin and tell her that the first hymn is Come, Thou Almighty King. Beautiful Savior is the prelude; the first hymn is Come, Thou Almighty King, all four stanzas.” James Turner said he would tell her, then he picked up the bulletins and went on his way.
Addie McTier rounded the corner north of the chancel just as Tommy reached the exit, she was making her rounds. She had been a Lutheran schoolteacher for forty years; there weren’t any Lutherans at Luther Memorial whom she had not taught in grammar school, vacation Bible school, or Sunday school. She was from the old school, she was revered because she was hard, and her students learned their numbers and knew their songs: she was hard on them because she loved them, and the harder she was the more they loved her because they understood why. Tommy had been one of her VBS seven-year-olds. On Sundays she superintended the Sunday school teachers, she usually visited every classroom.
She could see that Tommy was on his way to the office for solitude. Nobody had to tell her anything about what was going on at Luther Memorial. She asked him directly what she wanted to know: “Any of your people coming today, Reverend Hunt?” Addie knew that there were no more Sabourins in town, and that Tommy Hunt was not raised by his father but by his mother and her people. “My father’s coming, Miss Addie,” Tommy said with some pride. His father had never attended Luther Memorial before, not even when Tommy was baptized. “Well, the Lord be praised!” exclaimed Addie McTier. “His people are Wesley Memorial people, aren’t they?” Tommy was surprised that she would remember this. He admitted confidentially: “Sometimes.”
Tommy sat motionless for the first few moments after he finally took a seat at the pastor’s desk. He was thinking of Abby Wolf, James Turner, and Addie McTier. He was realizing that he had no nervousness about the crowd expected at eleven o’clock; nor even about his father’s unprecedented attendance at church. All the nervousness he had in the pit of his stomach was about how Abby Wolf was going to feel, what James Turner would say, and whether Addie McTier would be proud of him.
And so he began with prayer. He thought of old Pastor Odom who took him to task in confirmation class for not knowing that “every sermon starts with prayer”. At nearly twenty-one Thomas Sabourin Hunt had not yet learned to face the terrors of his own heart, and so he found the words for his most heartfelt prayers in hymns. On this occasion he prayed: O God, Thou faithful God, Thou Fountain ever flowing/Who good and perfect gifts In mercy art bestowing/Give me a healthy frame, And may I have within/A conscience free from blame, A soul unhurt by sin!
The time arrived for Tommy to take the pulpit and read his text. He had chosen Romans 6:23, which appears in the King James as follows: For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Tommy could have chosen no more perfect text for a quintessentially Lutheran sermon. It expressed all the distinctly Lutheran articles of faith: the simul justus et peccator paradox, the doctrine of justification by faith, and the quintessential Lutheran article of faith sola gratia. The text even had a Lutheran syntax: it divided into two distinct parts—Law and Gospel, a summary of the whole content of Lutheran preaching, at least as Tommy had been taught to believe. And he was fully prepared to do justice to both parts. He thoroughly explained the Law’s function as scourge, curb, and mirror. He used contemporary and relevant examples; he even quoted Shakespeare. His audience recognized that there was some prophet in their preacher, convicted of their sins as they were by his exhortations. But when it came to the Gospel, Tommy was on congenial turf; he was gentle by nature, a peacemaker; he was not the hellfire-and-brimstone type. He gave a glorious explication of the “the gift of God”, and so jubilant and consoling was his peroration that when he concluded with old Pastor Laymen’s customary prayer for the “peace that passeth all understanding”, Abby Wolf was on her feet clapping to her own rhythm.
In the liturgy immediately following the sermon, the congregation would stand and the preacher would move to face the altar and lead the congregation in the singing of the offertory. With his back to the congregation Tommy could feel a stir in the nave. It seemed that his sermon must have stunned the congregation, for it took half a stanza for the folks to find their voices, but then Abby Wolf’s uniquely off-key voice could be heard soaring into the lead with other voices enthusiastically joining in.
At the conclusion of the offertory Tommy picked up the collection plates from the altar, turned to face the congregation, and delivered the plates to James Turner and Frank Allen who had processed down the middle aisle to the base of the chancel. Mr. Turner managed a smile to Tommy, and Tommy could feel his chest beginning to swell from the warm wishes, perhaps adulation even, that he saw emanating from the eyes of all present—eyes fixed rigidly on him. To Tommy, buoyed by a growing sense of satisfaction at a job well done, the benediction seemed quickly over, and he found himself gliding, as it were, down the aisle as the congregation, averting their eyes, sang the doxology.
Tommy proudly marched out through the narthex to greet the people, not knowing that at the start of the offertory his father had collapsed and was removed before Tommy could turn around by the quick action of Matthew Richmond, George Herring, and Leon Wolf, three men who knew who he was. Tommy would conclude the service that Sunday morning not knowing that his father’s life and his preaching career would end that day.
Thomas Penn Johnson: "I was born on August 22nd, 1943 in Greensboro, North Carolina. I graduated from James B. Dudley High School in 1961. In 1968 I received an M.A. in English from UNC-G. In 1992 I published a collection of poems entitled If Rainbows Promise Not in Vain. In 2009 I retired from then-Edison State College in Fort Myers, Florida after serving for 26 years as an instructor of English and humanities. I reside in Fort Myers where I continues to write poetry and fiction."