I’ve recently come to the realization that Jerry Seinfeld is my spirit animal. For years, people have been vexed by the fact that I’d never really watched Seinfeld, stating that my sense of humor seems to mirror it. So I started watching it on Hulu, and realized it may be the greatest show ever made. I’ve fallen in love with the classic “show about nothing” and its crazy characters.
One of the most memorable presences on the show is Jerry’s eccentric neighbor, Cosmo Kramer. Played by comedian Michael Richards, Kramer became a solid favorite on the show with his manic quirky demeanor.
After the show ended in 1998, it seemed the Fab Four of Seinfeld would be forever known for their iconic roles. But then came a fateful evening in 2006, where Richards was performing a stand-up comedy routine and went on a vicious rant spewing profanities and racial slurs at a group that arrived late to the show. He then launched another profane racial slur laden tirade against a member of the group that called him out.
Richards apologized for the incident publicly several times, but the damage was done and his reputation was marred. Despite having played one of the most iconic characters of the 1990s, because of this incident, he went from being known as “Cosmo Kramer” to “the comedian that went into a racist rant.”
History is full of people who, despite doing great things, became defined by fateful mistakes.
Richard Nixon, while President, ended the military draft, enforced desegregation of schools, founded the EPA, and opened up trade with China. But he is remembered as a crook for the Watergate Scandal and resigning to avoid impeachment.
Oscar Pistorius, the “Blade Runner” of the 2012 London Olympics, became a hero to his home country of South Africa and many others worldwide. But he was ruined when he shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in 2013, and went from hero to murderer.
Scripture has such cases of people marred by mistakes as well.
Jephthah was a powerful warrior and military leader who won a great victory and rose to prominence in Gilead despite being the illegitimate son of a prostitute. But because of his foolish and tragic vow, he is remembered as the schmuck who had to sacrifice his daughter.
Thomas was one of the Apostles who formed the early Church, was said to have spread the Gospel as far as India, and was the first apostle to refer to Jesus as God. But because of one momentary lapse in faith after experiencing tragedy, he has been perennially branded as “Doubting Thomas”.
I could go one, but the point is pretty much made.
History is full of people branded by their mistakes.
Honestly, we are also often branded by mistakes, either by others or ourselves. We carry labels like failure, cheater, stupid, addict, slut, drunk, etc; and we eventually sadly come to see these as our identities.
While we are obligated to own our mistakes and their consequences, we also must understand they do not determine who we are.
We serve a God who is in the business of taking screw-ups and villains and giving them new identities and purposes.
Peter was the schmuck who dropped the ball during the Transfiguration, chopped a guy’s ear off against his master’s nonviolent enemy-love manifesto, and denied even knowing Jesus when push came to shove. But after the Resurrection, Jesus reinstated Peter and changed his identity from screw-up fisherman to shepherd leader of the Church.
Paul was a vicious and violent persecutor of the Church, hell-bent on destroying all followers of Jesus. But on the way to Damascus, an encounter with Jesus changed Saul the Persecutor into Paul the Apostle of Jesus and the greatest missionary of all time.
Charles Colson was Special Counsel to President Richard Nixon and a “hatchet man” specializing in destroying political opponents and covering up scandal. Colson eventually went down when he was found guilty of obstruction of justice in trying to cover up the Watergate Scandal and served time in prison. However, he came to Christ shortly before his incarceration, became an advocate for prison reform, and founded Prison Fellowship, the largest prison ministry in the country. His identity was changed from political evil genius to child of God and herald of the Kingdom of Christ.
The mistakes we make do have major consequences in our lives, but they need not determine who we are.
Christ, in the midst of our failings, gives us new purpose and identity in Him.
Going back to Michael Richards, in 2012, he appeared on Jerry Seinfeld’s new show, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” which is basically the most self-explanatory title in existence. During this episode, Richards addressed the 2006 comedy club incident and stated that he had learned a great deal from it, particularly a lesson in being selfless instead of being selfish. He admitted his behavior that fateful night was terribly selfish and that he wanted to live his remaining years selflessly. Seinfeld, his longtime friend who stood by him always, affirmed Richards and encouraged him to one day “pick up his instrument again.”
When we fail, which each of us will, we are required to bear the responsibility of the failure and the consequences that come with it. We must also bear responsibility for those hurt by the consequences of our actions. But, there is comfort in the fact that those failures do not constitute our identity in the eyes of God.
The God of the Universe, the Creator and Savior of the world, calls us by our names, not our failures.
Even in the midst of a world, a society, and even amidst churches that long to judge people by their failings, there is hope in the fact that God sees more in us and invites us to see it, too.
There is healing, instruction, encouragement, restoration, and new life waiting on the other side of our failures; and God longs to take each of us there. The question is whether or not we’ll let Him.