text :: Colossians 3:12-17
theme verse :: “Above all, clothe yourself with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Colossians 3:14)
Character has long been among our greatest treasures as humans. “Don’t call into question my character!” we exclaim. You might serve as a Character Reference for someone applying for a job. Of course, the famed line in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s speech comes to mind: “Judge [my children] not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Character is the richness of our core-being and we hold its value as a priceless commodity. What does it mean to add the word, “Christian” in front of character? It is no insignificant addition.
opening :: 'Christ Alone (Cornerstone)' (HillsongUnited) :: The Rising Band
reader :: Roy Peters
preaching :: Rev Mark Briley
offertory :: 'Eternal Life' (O.Dungan) :: Kevin Howe, tenor; Susie Monger-Daugherty, piano
It is Award Show season. Singers, actors, and performers of all kinds are typically heckled by hosts and then awarded for their performances of the previous year. It’s not a perfect or completely fair system, of course, and occasional mistakes are made – just ask Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway who were part of what was labeled as “The greatest mistake in Academy Awards history.” It happened at last year’s show when Beatty and Dunaway announced the night’s most prestigious award for Best Motion Picture. They announced the winner as La La Land to the cheers of the crowd. But, the big finale was upstaged in dramatic fashion (as only a show honoring drama could) when La La Land producer, Jordan Horowitz, took the mic and said, “There’s been a mistake – Moonlight, you guys won Best Picture.” Gasps and confusion and chaos ensued. La La Land had not won, in fact. Moonlight was the true winner. Beatty and Dunaway were given the wrong envelope. Oops. But… it made for great television I suppose.
The awards are many – costumes, music, technical support, directing, editing, make-up and every possible other role in connection to the production of a film or show. “Best Attitude Before Having Coffee on a Tuesday Morning.” Everyone gets a trophy, you know? Best Actor and Actress in a Leading Role are two of the biggies, right? And they always take top billing over the Best Supporting Actor or Actress in the film. The supporting roles are the undercard winners of the night but often, arguably, do the better acting than the leads. Here – a little movie trivia may help. See if you any of you movie buffs can answer this: “What actor got his television debut playing “Man in Sleeping Bag” on NYPD Blue in 1994? Throwback I know. Here’s a hint. His film debut came as Heckler #2 in the memorable 1990 made-for-TV movie, “She’ll Take Romance.” Anyone? Bueller? It’s a household name. The one and only Paul Giamatti. This is the point when you go, “Oh yeah, that guy.” Another primary supporting role actor, Sam Rockwell, has been sweeping the Best Supporting Actor category this year for his role in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (I haven’t seen it so don’t consider this an endorsement – I have lived in Missouri, however, and I’ve seen billboards there so I can attest that at least those components are legit). Rockwell hosted Saturday Night Live recently and introduced himself to the crowd by saying, “Most of you probably know me as ‘that guy from that movie.’ You know who I’m talking about… not the main guy but the other guy and when you see him you’re like, “Oh, this guy. I like this guy. He’s pretty good.” That’s me.’ We’ll see what is ahead of Rockwell. We know a bit more about Paul Giamatti. He went on to have some great acclaim in supporting roles in Saving Private Ryan, Sideways, and Cinderella Man. During that stretch of films, Giamatti was dubbed by Time magazine as “The World’s Best Character Actor.” The most powerful performance of the film is not always the performance offered by the one with the acclaim and star-power.
This is true in other aspects of life. Quarterbacks in the NFL get big bucks and endorsement deals and star recognition while the guys doing all the work of blocking on the front line get little praise and notice at all until they get shamed for a holding penalty. Ghostwriters – heard of those? They are people who actually write best-selling “autobiographies” of the big-name folks. “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country?” JFK, right? He said it but Ted Sorensen, his talented speech writer, crafted the phrase. It is widely believed that Sorensen was the actual author of Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of heroic U.S. Senators. Even one of my mentors in ministry, a Senior Minister of a large church, used to tell me when trying to describe the good work of his team, “I get far more credit than I deserve.” He did also note, “I get far more of the blame too.”
Character Actors. We’re talking about character today. Maybe a different slant on the notion of character but there may be some overlap too. All actors are characters but the sort of unofficial title of Character Actor tends to describe those who portray a role of a person who may be a bit unusual, interesting, maybe even a bit eccentric. When I think of Character Actors, however, I think of honesty, vulnerability, “real” and “raw” – sort of that person who is not perfect but has a real quality of authenticity that, at times, can seem to lack in the lead role that may often be less realistic – and super-hero level. I think of character as we speak of it when we talk about that coffee table we inherited from the grandparents – the dents and scratches and teeth marks from years of family wear and tear and what do we say about it? It has a lot of character. True. Real. Honest. Authentic. As we’re talking about character and the way it shapes our lives, authenticity may tell a good deal of the story.
Paul writes to the church at Colossae, which would be modern day Turkey, with a word about character. Not to criticize the Colossian church as they were also trying to figure out what it means to be raised in Christ, they seem to have become fascinated with what they called, “mysterious things,” something sort of like the ancient counterpart to fortune telling. They were into psychic reading-like practices. They were interested in seeing the future and maybe even communing with the deceased thinking, “Hey – if we are going to seek the things above and leave behind the things of this world then we’ve got to do some unusual things.” So they became fascinated by things that no one else seemed to understand. They had this practice that is hard to translate from the Greek into our language but the best way we can say it is, “They walked in the middle of the air.” What were they doing? Seeking the things that are above. It was their response to being raised with Christ: “Hey! We’re not like we used to be and we’re going to prove it.” So, they had this ceremony of elevation (maybe not unlike practices like walking on hot coals or snake handling – people have risked those things in the name of faith too). They also were determined to be morally and ethically rigorous which, “Hey, that can’t be all bad, right?” They created this motto which you can find in the second chapter: “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch.” A+ for religious rigor, right? But Paul writes them saying, “You’re missing the mark.” I love Fred Craddock’s paraphrase of Paul’s response. He says, “So Paul wrote to them and said, ‘All that stuff you’re doing has a show of religion and I am sure you are amazing a lot of people. I am sure they are really fascinated by how deeply, sincerely religious you are, but I want you to know, it does not amount to a hill of beans.’ Paul said, “What you are doing is self-serving, self-promoting, and spiritually egotistical, and it has nothing to do with Jesus Christ. You are simply doing your own thing and calling it “being really religious.”
I’m not going to pick on the Colossians this morning. We’ve fallen into those traps before I imagine. Image? Perception? We may put on an Oscar-worthy performance for a while, but that’s not who we are at the core. John Wooden, legendary UCLA basketball Coach and member of a Disciples church like ours, used to say this about character. “Be more concerned with your character than with your reputation. Your character is what you really are while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” A true test of character is to measure a person or company or church or organization by how they operate when it is no longer in their own best interest to keep their promises. We call this a test of character. Most of the time, we do not pass tests we haven’t prepared for. Character is a test over time… it takes time to form and it begins to show up in the patterns of our lives.
The authors of The Shape of our Lives study say it this way. “We see our neighbor battle with cancer over many months with an indomitable spirit and we feel justified in calling her “courageous” and “brave.” We work for years for an employer who consistently looks out for the well-being of all of his employees and we feel justified in saying that he is “just” and “fair.” Over the years we watch a mother care for her disabled little boy, striving to help him cope with the basics of life, and we feel justified in calling her “patient” and “steadfast.” But does this mean that our neighbor has never acted cowardly, or that our employer has never acted unjustly, or that this mother has never lost her patience with her little boy? Of course not. We see the character of another once we have seen enough of their life to feel confident about the ways in which they are typically inclined or disposed to act.” Patterns of courage. Patterns of justice. Patterns of patience. Virtues. Character. What kind of patterns are you demonstrating in your life right now? How will the world know that you’ve been raised? Raised with Christ? This is what Paul asks the Colossians.
Fred Craddock, hero-preacher that I mentioned earlier, told of his puzzlement with this question following his own baptism just a few weeks short of his fourteen birthday. The pastor who baptized him said when he baptized him, “You have died and now you have been raised with Christ. Set your mind on things that are above.” This seemed pretty lofty to teenage Fred. He walked home with his wet clothes wrapped in a wet towel under his arm trying to wrap his brain around what that meant – After you’ve been raised, some things have to be different. But what? He said, “I went to school on Monday morning wondering, ‘Is anybody going to know that I’ve been raised? Should I dress up a little better than I’ve been dressing? It wouldn’t hurt. Do I talk another way? Do I throw in a verse of scripture now and then? What do I do at ball practice? Are they going to say, ‘Well, it looks like he’s been raised from the dead?” How do you talk? How do you walk? How do you relate?’ How. Do. You. Live. It? How do people know you’ve been raised?
What Paul says makes me think we need to aspire to win the Oscar for “Best Costume Design and Wardrobe.” He names it as clothing – take off the garments of greed and sexual misconduct and malicious talk against others – lose the scarf of gossip. But really, we’re talking about character patterns. I know this because my wardrobe has not naturally improved since my baptism. I’ll still wear denim on denim sometimes – or khaki on khaki or what was it that one of you asked me to pronounce from the pulpit someday to help your spouse see the light? Don’t wear socks with your sandals. It’s just a bad witness for Jesus, okay? Wardrobe check! Paul tells the Colossians to clothe themselves but it has nothing to do with red carpet attire. It’s nothing to do with the show – which the Colossian Christians had gotten caught up in. Don’t show me your list of doctrines. Don’t tell me how religious you are. Live your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel. That’s what creates a pattern. That’s what builds character. Paul makes a list of the clean clothes we should choose to wear now that we’ve claimed Christ as our way, our truth, our life. We’ve got to give up some of the clothes that we used to think were stylish.
Paul’s writing to the Colossian church is probably the struggle that I have with our boys sometimes. They take off their dirty school clothes that they’ve played in all day, that 70% of their classmates have sneezed on with something that might not be influenza (but probably is) and rolled around in the back yard with the neighbors. If I’m not careful, they’ll take a bath and throw that gear right back on their clean little bodies afterward. Paul is saying, “Stop it.” Put on the clean stuff – do you remember what that is? Being kind to people? Put it on. Humility? Yep – coordinates well with your new life. Put on forgiveness. Put on love. These are the clothes of resurrection. A resurrection character. “You’ve got to coordinate” and Paul’s list of old clothes like arrogance, idolatry, hatred, judgmentalism… don’t coordinate with Christian character. Let them go. It’s time for some new digs.
Jennie Jarvis is a once actress turned director and producer. She said, “When I first started [acting], I genuinely thought that the job of an actor was to just memorize lines and then say them in a way that “sounded” good.” As she grew in the craft, she employed what has come, in some ways, cliché in the acting world, the practice of asking yourself the question, “What’s my motivation?” That was different than saying the lines well or using good facial expressions… it was digging to the heart of a characters, well, character. Claiming a character’s motivation is the only way to deliver the lines convincingly and authentically. This can be hard if you don’t have access to the writer though actors are not puppets, after all, for the writer to control. They are artists who must learn how to take the roles that they are given and make them their own.
Listen. You’ve been given a role that nobody else in this world has been given. There is only one you. What is your driving motivation? Once you are raised? Once you have committed your role in the reign of God, every gift and skill and passion you have will come to life in a new way and it will change the world. You’re the lead actor of your life but you’re the supporting character actor in the story of God’s movement of Christ. Perhaps the motivation of the Christ-follower is sheer honesty. Authenticity. God seems to be more into character actors than those with big-name box office draw anyway – just read the Gospels and you’ll see. There’s a role for you to play. Know your motivation. Commit to developing your character to stand the tests and inciting incidents and conflicts that will inevitably come. Learn the role you’ve been given and make it your own and stay true to the character. The actors and actresses who will take home awards this season are generally those who found a piece of themselves in the characters they were called to play – they could play the part with truth and authenticity. You are faced with choices every day. What is your motivation? Daily answers to those questions are forming your character even as we sit here now. You may not ever win an Oscar or Emmy or Tony. To many you may only be known as “that guy, you know, not the main guy but that other guy.” You may only be slated as a character actor or actress and never the star. But. You clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience and I can promise you, the eternal after party will be the greatest celebration ever.
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 Trivia about Paul Giamatti and the JFK reference is attributed to Bob Kaylor, Senior Writer for Homiletics in his work called “Character Actors” based on 1 Samuel 15 for the June 2006 edition of the publication.
 Both references to Fred Craddock’s work come from his book, “The Cherry Log Sermons.” Westminster John Knox Press. 2001. Pg. 99.
 The Shape of our Lives. Kenneson, Murphy, Williams, Fowl, and Lewis. WIPF & STOCK. Eugene, OR. 2008. This sermon series is shaped by this study. Its influence is evident in the selection of scripture passages and other support for the message.
Giamatti photo credit: billboard.com styles
Rockwell photo credit: by Michael Buckner/Deadline/REX/Shutterstock (9188866be); Sam Rockwell; Deadline Hollywood Presents THE CONTENDERS 2017, Portrait Studio, Los Angeles, USA – 04 Nov 2017