Keeping In Character

Keeping In Character

Mark 12:28-34               

In a church that I previously served, there was a small group of members who shared an interest in the dramatic arts.

A few of them had experience performing with a local theater group.

Others had no experience but a lot of interest and enthusiasm for acting.

So, we decided to create a “drama ministry” in the church.

The director would periodically submit scripts for me to review, and those that were a good match for a particular Sunday were turned into skits that were acted out during those worship services.

I remember a piece of drama coaching that the director offered the group during a rehearsal.

One of the actors forgot his lines, then immediately broke character to apologize for messing up.

The director used that moment to impress upon the cast the importance of always staying in character, even when you can’t remember your next line.

She said, “Do something to make the audience believe that the pause is part of the script, until you recall the line.”

And if you are playing a scene when a fellow actor forgets their next line, one of you should help them find their way back to the script by ad libbing some subtle cue to help jog their memory.

Once, I even saw her take her own advice about keeping in character.

During a soliloquy in a one-person skit where she played an old woman, she forgot her next lines.

Instead of panicking and breaking character, she seamlessly worked her forgetfulness into the scene, her character bemoaning aloud her age and absent mindedness until the lines came back to her.

Nobody in the church except me could tell that her little digression wasn’t part of the script. 

Acting is one of the world’s oldest professions, dating back to the great civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome.

The Greek word for actor is hypocresis.  That’s where we get our English word – hypocrite. 

Of course, when we use the word hypocrite to describe someone, it’s not because they are skilled at pretending to be someone else on the stage.

It’s because they have demonstrated a lack of integrity in real life.

Sometimes Christians are labeled as hypocrites for acting holier than thou when they are actually as down and dirty as anybody.

But in a very real sense, Christianity does invite us to be like somebody we’re not.

That somebody is Jesus.

In a sense, we ARE called to be actors.

Our purpose is to be imitators of Christ.

Not the kind of acting that is pretending to be someone we are not, but the art of becoming the someone we were meant to be.

Thomas a` Kempis, in his classic work, The Imitation of Christ, wrote: “For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God?”

Jesus has written the script for us to follow.

Not to follow by rote, insincere repetition,

but through heartfelt devotion and personal transformation.

It’s the same script he offered to the scribe who questioned him about what was the most important of all the commandments.

Jesus said, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,

and with all your soul, and with all your mind,

and with all your strength.

And ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. “

Did you know there are more than 600 commandments and laws in the Bible?

Yet, the sum of them all can be expressed in those two commandments.

The first is to love God with every fiber of your being.

That’s how Jesus loved his Heavenly Father.

The second part of the greatest commandment, according to Jesus, is to love your neighbor no less than you love yourself.

Because that is how Jesus loves you and me.

Loving God and loving each other go hand in hand.

The words we speak and the things we do should always reflect our relationship to Jesus.

We should live in such a way that we are less concerned with attracting the limelight onto ourselves and more on making Jesus center stage.

Contemporary Christian musician Zach Williams says it plainly in the refrain from one of his songs: “O Lord help me be a little more like Jesus, a little less like me.”

Shakespeare had it right when he wrote that, “All the world’s a stage.” 

Every day the curtain rises, presenting us with fresh opportunities to love God fully and love others earnestly.

There are no shortcuts to preparing for our roles as witnesses for Jesus.

Getting into the character of discipleship takes genuine desire and devotion to the role we are called to live.

 There are no stunt men to stand in for us in the risky scenes of life that may come with discipleship.

We can’t rely on make-up artists or special effects to make us more than what we are.

The very best screen actors are those who immerse themselves in their roles so that they can be as authentic as possible to the part they are playing.

This is especially true of actors who portray an actual, historical  person, and not some fictional character.

They delve into that person’s life to become truer representations of them.

Maybe they gain or lose weight to be more physically like the person they are playing.

They might master a certain accent or an idiosyncrasy that their character possesses.

Christians can immerse themselves in learning Christ-likeness through prayer, worship, service to others, and regular study of the scriptures.

The better we come to know Jesus through the scriptures and in the intimacy of prayer,

the clearer we will be about who he calls us to be.

As imitators of Christ on the stage of daily life, we all stumble.

We all forget our lines.

We don’t love God totally each day.

We don’t always reflect the love that we have received from God to others. 

The best actors know that in those moments everything depends on not stepping out of character.

They don’t turn to the audience apologetically or walk off the stage in shame.

 They press on with being faithful to their role until finally they get back on track.

Sometimes with the help of a cue from one of the supporting cast.

Isn’t that what the Church should be like?

Not only where we learn the character we are called to be,

but where we support one another in those times when keeping in character is not that easy?

What works on the stage of the theater works just as well on the stage of life.

No matter how earnestly we try to love God with everything we are

and to love others no less than we love ourselves,

there will be times when we break character.

That’s when we need to be reminded who we are, and whose we are.

We are saints. Not Saints with a capital S.

Not the Saints found on medallions or in statuary, or who have churches named for them.

According to scripture, anyone who believes in Jesus and seeks to follow his ways, are saints—with a small s.

Those capital S saints can be sources of inspiration by the exceptional examples they set at loving God and loving others.

But sometimes we can also be inspired by the knowledge that even those capital S saints had their moments of struggling to keep in character.

After her death, some of Mother Teresa’s private letters were made public.

What they revealed about her private spiritual life was that she often struggled to experience God’s presence.

That news shocked many people who saw her as a model of someone who loved God and loved others on an almost unparalleled scale.

It led others to dismiss her as a hypocrite.

Someone who pretended to something she was not.

What we can learn from Mother Teresa’s experience is the example she set by persistently keeping in character with the one in whom she had placed her faith,

by loving the poorest and sickest on the streets of Calcutta,

even in those times when her sense of God’s presence drew a blank.

Which really is less hypocrisy, and more keeping in character with Jesus.

Who, on the cross, in his greatest demonstration of love for God and for us all, cried out to God, who seemed to have abandoned him.

In his First Letter to the Church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul famously wrote these words warning against the hypocrisy of not keeping in character as followers of Jesus:

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

May we each, in our own ways, live out the script we have been given as Christ’s disciples.

The script of loving God fully and loving others compassionately.

And may we as a community of faith, support one another when any of us needs a friendly cue to get us back on track for the precious roles we are called to live.

© 2021      Raymond Medeiros

Preached October 31, 2021 (All Saints Sunday)