He was known as the “Tootsie Roll minister.” The Rev. Dr. Paul R. Coleman was the founding pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Youngstown, and except for one early appointment as an associate pastor in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania, he spent nearly his entire career guiding the Youngstown congregation, and, when he retired in 1986, he was named “Pastor Emeritus.” Coleman, however, preferred to be known as the Tootsie Roll minister. In fact, when he died at age 92 in 2014, his obituary mentioned that title. Coelmen earned this moniker because he seemed to have a never-ending supply of tiny Tootsie Rolls that he handed out to nearly everyone he met.
Writer and Editor Stan Purdum, met Coleman once at a community ministerial meeting, and received two of the little candies from him— plopped right in his hand by the Tootsie Roll minister. Noticing the bemused expression on Purdum’s face, Coleman explained that he had given them out for so long that they now functioned as a calling card. He said that when making pastoral calls, if he found no one home, he left two Tootsie Rolls on the doorknob of the home. When the residents got home, they knew he’d been there. Years later, Purdum says that Coleman is the only person he remembers from the many in attendance that day at the ministerial meeting.
Like me, you’re probably wondering why Coleman chose Tootsie Rolls. Was there some kind of Illuminati connection between Tootsie Rolls, the Bible and Jesus that only he had discovered? Well, no one knows. The reason for tootsie Rolls died with Coleman. But we do know that the distinctive look of the Tootsie wrappers certainly contributed to their usefulness for him.
An NPR article on design and popular culture last year pointed out that some packaging is so distinctive that it transforms what it covers from a mere consumer product to a cultural icon. The article pointed to Tootsie Roll packaging as a prime example. “It’s hard to imagine any other sweet treat residing inside the Tootsie Roll wrapper,” the article said, adding that, “although the candy itself is often overlooked these days, its wrapping is iconic— from its colors to its recognizable font.”
Besides Tootsie Rolls, the article mentioned the Coca-Cola glass bottle with its distinctive contoured shape, the Pringles can that keeps potato chips from breaking, the Jiffy Pop container that doubles as a tool for cooking the popcorn, the Jif Lemon Juice plastic squeeze bottle that’s shaped like a lemon, the Kikkoman Soy Sauce bottle with the dripless spout and the Morton Salt box with the girl under the umbrella.
What these various packages have in common (and here is the point of all this) is that each has a distinctive look that not only helps consumers quickly recognize what’s inside them, but also makes them memorable.
This concept of being memorable is what Paul is talking about—particularly when he speaks of imitating him. Paul wants the follower of Christ to be memorable to those who he/she crosses paths with. Paul wants “the look” of the Christian to be memorable, but not just any kind memorable-ness. Paul wants a positive and faithful impression to be what others remember.
With that in mind, let’s consider Paul’s words in verse 17 of our text: “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.” Without reading the context, Paul’s “join in imitating me” would sound conceited. But if you read what Paul wrote in verses 7-16 preceding today’s text, it becomes clear that the imitation he seeks is for his readers to commit themselves to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” just as he has done.
Scholar Dr. Richard Pulling, put it this way: “Paul is likely saying, ‘Be imitators with me,’ rather than ‘Be imitators of me.’” Then the next part of what Paul says in verse 17, “Observe those who live according to the example you have in us”, is a way of saying that some Christians who are mature in the faith have something distinctive about them that enables those who look at them to recognize what’s inside. Those people, including himself, can be examples for other Christians and even non-Christians to follow—those who, perhaps, are not as mature in Christ or don’t know Christ.
It’s possible to push a metaphor too far, of course. Using the idea of “a look” to present the model of a Christian can lead to a silly conclusion— that committed Christians somehow appear physically different from other people.
But Henry Wingblade, a Baptist preacher and leader of the last century, gives us a better way to think about it. He said that most of the time our commitment to Christ is not visibly obvious until something happens that causes us to act in a way that shows we are followers of Jesus. Wingblade illustrated this by referring to a waiter carrying a covered tureen dish filled with soup. Nobody knows what is inside it unless the waiter is bumped and spills the contents. In the same way, people may not know what is inside of us until we’ve been “bumped” by something in life. Then, said Wingblade, if Christ is living inside of us, what spills out is the fruit of the Spirit.
That’s a unique metaphor I thought—a waiter carrying soup and getting bumped. We’ve all been bumped right? And hopefully we’ve all spilled out the fruit of the Spirit when we have. But looking at some Christians who were severely “bumped” makes that point in a more focused way.
Last year, after the racist and terrorist Dylann Roof was arrested for shooting nine black people to death at a prayer meeting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, some of the relatives of the dead came to court to speak directly to Roof, and they told him that they forgave him.
Nadine Collier, daughter of victim Ethel Lance, was one who spoke. Collier said to Roof, “I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul. … You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But if God forgives you, I forgive you.”
At a news conference later, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley alluded to the statements the victims’ families extended toward the shooter, saying, “Their expression of faith and forgiveness took our breath away.” And no wonder. In that painful circumstance, those relatives of the murdered looked like the Christians they are. Memorable Christians indeed.
It’s important to remember that “looking like a Christian” is not something reserved for the times when life throws pounding blows at us; we also ought to have “the look” when things are routine and we are unruffled, rather than ruffled.
On the Web page containing Rev. Coleman’s obituary, there’s a guestbook entry from someone named Kim Husk who wrote: “What a wonderful and generous man Rev. Coleman was! I will never forget the kindness he showed me as a child. He was always there with a friendly smile and a Tootsie Roll in his hand when he greeted me. I am blessed to have known him.”
Kindness, of course, is not a Christians-only quality, but Ms. Husk recognized the godliness of it as it was demonstrated by Coleman in some ordinary moments of life and cemented with Tootsie Rolls. In our text, Paul urges the believers in Philippi to learn the breadth and depth of Christianity by observing Christians who “are mature” but of course he’s not talking about chronological age; rather he’s talking about people who have allowed the way of Christ to so permeate their lives that they, in fact, look like Christians in the way they handle what comes at them, both the easy stuff and the hard.
And, let’s be clear that Paul was not just urging his readers simply to “be nicer to everybody.” In our text, he reminds his readers that their ultimate citizenship is in heaven, so he’s talking about living as citizens of that kingdom right here and right now.
Our lives are translations of the gospel, and this season of Lent that we are firmly rooted within is when we learn just how to be the memorable Christians we are called to be.
In Lent we learn how to model Christ by giving up that which separates us from God and taking up a way of service and care and compassion to others like that of Jesus. In Lent we learn to forgive as we have been forgiven. In Lent we learn to walk with Jesus, becoming aware that yes it is hard and yes it can be scary and arduous and annoying and aggravating but that it will lead us to a place of profound life.
The Apostle calls us to be imitators of Christ with him—he calls us to be memorable Christians who in all times and places, spill out the fruit of the Spirit.
So how are we doing at doing that? How are you doing at doing that? That’s the questions all of us need to ask ourselves—how am I doing at being a memorable Christian? Am I memorable in a good and faithful way? Or am I memorable in other ways—ways not so Christ-like?
A faithful follower of Christ has a distinctive look that not only helps people quickly recognize what’s inside them—like the packaging of Tootsie Rolls, Coca Cola, and the like— but also makes them memorable, and that look is like that of Jesus—who served sinners, healed the broken, forgave the unforgivable, and loved without condition.
May we strive, like Paul, to have such a look. May we strive to spill out such a product. May we strive to live in such a way, so that we might become memorable Christians. Amen.