A few years ago
Anderson Cooper interviewed Stephen Colbert—
perhaps you’ve seen it?
During that interview,
Cooper quotes Colbert saying
in an earlier interview,
“What punishments from God are not gifts?”
This was Colbert’s response
when asked about the plane crash
that killed his father and two brothers
when he was only 10 years old.
Cooper repeats the line—
What punishments from God are not gifts—
then, after a long pause, asks,
“Do you really believe that?”
“Yes,” Colbert replies.
“It’s a gift to exist.
It’s a gift to exist,
and with existence comes suffering.
There’s no escaping that.”
He goes on to to explain
that surprising response.
Somehow, even that tragedy
is understood, transformed,
in light of the story of his faith.
He lives in a story that
promises God is a God of love,
saying, “If God is everywhere,
and God is in everything,
then the world as it is
is all just an expression
of God and his love. . . .
You can’t pick and choose
what you’re grateful for.
So, what do you get from loss?
You get awareness of other people’s loss, . . .
which allows you to love more deeply . . .”
Later he says, “This is the suffering of Christ.
God [suffers] too.
You’re really not alone.”
The story we have about God,
the story we hope in,
we believe, well, that shapes us.
the social worker
humiliated, handcuffed naked,
by the Chicago Police who
wrongfully raided her apartment,
writes in a recent article
about that experience
and her long path towards redemption.
She writes of the pain
of that event,
a symbol and experience
of injustice too common for Black people,
of trying to make sense of it.
She writes of reading the Bible,
praying, talking to her pastor and her therapist,
of seeking to move towards forgiveness.
She ends the article this way:
“Therein lies the answer to the question “Why me, God?” Why did I have this experience of being humiliated by the 12 men who stood in front of my naked body? Because my silent tears are a part of a larger plan—one that will have a loud, thunderous outcome.
Who is Anjanette Young? She is a woman of God who has learned to see all of life’s experiences through a spiritual lens, knowing that all things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose.”
She has placed her story
within the story of God,
the long story of a God of justice,
a God of purpose,
and she has a role within that purpose.
The stories we live in matter,
and Jesus is providing
a story for our lives
in his Sermon on the Plain.
Last week, we heard the beatitudes.
Today Jesus continues,
“But I say to you that listen,”
which can also be read as,
“you who are STILL listening,”
and those who are still listening
are those who have heard the Good News
that though they live difficult lives,
the normal stresses and strains of life
but also because they live
in a land run by an oppressive government
and in a time when
the religious hierarchy
can feel more constraining than helpful,
though it might appear
that they are the downtrodden,
the excluded, the marginalized,
in fact THEY are children of God,
of the God’s kingdom
where the poor and the hungry,
the mourning and the hated
are the very people God blesses.
And because they are already
the inheritors of God’s generosity,
already recipients of
the mercy and grace and forgiveness of God,
well, they don’t have to live
They don’t have to live
according to the ways of the world
that say if someone hits you,
If someone wrongs you,
Is someone hates you,
smear them in the public square.
No, they can raise their heads
for redemption is drawing near;
they can live in dignity
for they live in a different land.
Their story is one
of belovedness and tender mercy,
of abundance and justice
flowing like a mighty stream.
What Jesus is saying here,
to thus of us who are STILL listening,
is that we don’t have to respond
to the way people treat us
but can act out of what we believe,
what we know, to be true:
God is merciful.
We live in the generosity of God,
the love of God,
which we see poured out
in Jesus Christ.
We who have been
the enemies of God
have been forgiven;
we who have fallen short
of the glory of God
have been raised to a new stature
in Jesus Christ.
When we live in that story,
our lives are changed.
The grace of God
what seems impossible.
If we know God to be merciful,
then mercy is possible.
Now, let me be clear.
We all know of injustices and hurts
that ought not to be condoned,
Trusting in the mercy of God
does not mean
remaining in abusive situations.
Believing that God
can work good
even out of injustice and sorrow
does not mean that
God created or willed
bad things in our lives.
But living in THIS story,
this image of God—
the one who is tender and merciful and forgiving,
the one whose good pleasure
it is to give us the kingdom,
well that allows us to act
in dignified, loving ways,
rather than fearful, angry ways.
This isn’t just some farfetched
pie in the sky dream, either.
We have examples of those
whose lives are so shaped
by these promises of God
that they faced down
their oppressors and enemies
with courage and dignity and mercy.
I don’t have to rehearse
the story of Archbishop Tutu in South Africa.
He acted with dignity, even good humor,
when threatened by the government.
After Apartheid fell,
the Archbishop insisted
that the oppressors take responsibility
and that the victims
not seek revenge.
As a man of faith,
there was another way:
the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Truth and forgiveness,
a society repaired,
pointing to the kingdom of God
we hope for.
We can look to the courage
of our own citizens
during the Civil Rights Movement
who knew that our
system of apartheid
couldn’t take away
their God-given dignity
and that the only way to confront and transform,
rather than transmit,
the violence and hatred of this country
was through a loving resistance,
nurtured by prayer and scripture and song
confirming the justice and mercy of God.
Stories shape our lives.
The right story enlarges us.
The wrong story damages,
twists, and distorts us.
Some of you may be as enamored as I am
of the show Ted Lasso—
the story of a “Gee Whiz,” kind American football coach
who takes over a struggling soccer team in England.
Through the two seasons
we see people transformed
by hope and kindness,
but there is one who lives
in a story of a judgmental Father,
which makes it impossible
for him to flourish.
Nate is a shy equipment manager
at the start of the series,
but Coach Lasso sees his talents
and elevates him to assistant coach,
calling him “Nate the Great”
and encouraging him.
At first, Nate flourishes,
but he is so damaged
by his dismissive, distant father
that he cannot live
in this story of hope and redemption.
We watch him literally
curve in on himself—
Martin Luther’s definition of sin—
as he curls over his phone,
checking Twitter constantly
to see what people are saying about him.
His own belief in judgment
and that he’ll only have power and respect
if he puffs himself up and denigrates others
means that he cannot live
in the generosity and openness
being nurtured by Ted.
Spoiler alert, Nate is unable
to remain in the clubhouse,
which, though imperfect,
really is a place of
mercy and goodness.
Instead of seeing Ted as he really is,
he can only see him
as a caricature of his own father.
There are many versions
of stories we can tell ourselves
about God, but here are two:
God is merciful and just,
our lives have meaning and dignity
because we are part of God’s kingdom
OR God is out to get us, or absent, or indifferent,
so we’d better get our own,
focusing on ourselves,
rather than others.
Jesus’ commands today are outrageous:
Love your enemies,
do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you,
pray for those who abuse you,
turn your check,
give your shirt to those who’ve taken your coat.
We hear them,
and we feel ashamed:
how can ever live up to this?
We hear them,
and we are angry:
how can Jesus ask this of us?
We hear them,
and we are incredulous:
nothing in the world
will allow us to behave this way.
But, Beloved, our God is merciful.
This is not a to do list but a vision
of what it is to be forgiven,
loved, and free in God.
What Jesus asks here is impossible
and can only be done by the grace of God.
We can do nothing on our own
but “can do all things through God who strengthens [us] (Phil 4:13].
We are, by nature, like Nate,
curved in on ourselves,
thinking first of ourselves,
but today Jesus offers another way,
which is to live a cruciform life,
taking up our cross,
flinging our arms wide,
vulnerable, yet open, to the world.
This is impossible,
so we must ask God’s help.
Perhaps it is best to begin
just by asking God
to give us the desire to do these things,
praying that God’s grace
might work though us.
We can never succeed on our own.
We can never succeed wholly
on this side of eternity.
For we will not be abandoned.
You are not alone.
All things work together for the good of those who love God.
Our God is merciful.
That’s the story, the God, we live in,
in whom we live and move and have our being.
Here’s a story to believe,
a story to stake your life on,
a story I promise is true:
Our God is a God of mercy and love,
and his mercy and love . . . are for YOU.