Joe Neville

Psalm 25:1-9

Philipians 2:1-13



Questions of the Heart


Have you ever in your life had the difficult moment in which you had to place complete trust in someone? I recall a conversation with one of the vice presidents, at Arthur D Little, Inc.; an Industrial think tank in Cambridge, MA.  I was the supervisor of the pressroom bindery and camera department there.  I had taken a few creative writing courses at the Harvard extension and was content to finish my bachelorís degree at Northeastern University in 8 or nine years.  I was married and we had a two year old daughter.

Well, the head of the editing department asked if he might read one of my papers.  Not sure whether I was pleased of frightened out of my gourd, I gave him one.  He read it and suggested I meet his boss at one of the corporate functions.

There I met, Arthur Bud Bryant.  He walked right over to me at the event and introduced himself.  After about a rather intense 30 minute conversation, he suggested that I participate in an event in Sandusky, Ohio that he thought would help me to realize my potential.  The convener of that event was Ella Gubitz, who later became Budís wife.  From that moment in time he and Ella Gubitz took me on a ride of unimagined possibilities.  He asked if I would be interested in moving out of the pressroom into the Urban Development Group to expand my exposure.  Of course, I eagerly agreed.  It was a heady time.  I met people that I had only read about in the news; I was given assignments that stretched me beyond anything I could have imagined.  Bud and Ella became my mentors and indicated that there was absolutely nothing I couldnít do if I set my mind to it.  They introduced me to folks in that circle with words I will never forget, ďThis is Joe Neville our new friend and colleague. He has a great gift and is just starting to uncover it.  I know you will enjoy talking to him."

As impressed as I was, I never felt confident enough to take the step forward.  So I tinkered and procrastinated in my position.  Who was I to venture into this area?  Besides, I had no college degree, and more importantly, I had a family and responsibilities.  Well, a few months later, I was called into Budís office; he informed me that it was obvious that I needed to start college full time.  He suggested that the time was never going to be any better and that he was going to give me an interesting incentive:  He would provide office space, write letters to which ever school I decided to attend, but I was being let go.

Years later, I remember Bud and Ella with gratitude and love. The question beating from my heart during that period had been a universal one, a common question, but so significant and important. Will I be all right? Will I be loved? Will I be accepted? Although I didn't fully understand it then, I was asking a question of the heart. And Arthur Bud Bryant wisely gave me the answer I didn't know I was seeking.

It is the primary gift of the teacher--to provide us with answers to the deep, hidden, wordless questions of our hearts, without our even knowing the question or having the words to formulate our own longing.

These past few weeks and months we have baptized more than ten children and listened as their parents promised to teach them so that they will come to know God in Christ.  We have pledged ourselves and our children to the ongoing task of learning about faith and the wisdom of our tradition. We have placed ourselves in the hands of God as we seek to discover the questions raised by the heart.

The Philippians text is known as the Great Christ Hymn. It is usually read in the throes of the passion of the final Sunday of Lent to remind us of the incredible nature of Jesus, who for our sake became both divine and human--a mystery which many of us would just as soon leave a mystery as try to figure out.

As our lectionary suggests, it is wise for us to consider Christ on this day.  Christ is known to us by many names, and each name elicits particular meaning--brother, son, savior, master, friend, lover, healer, redeemer, Rabbi, Teacher.

Of all the roles Jesus took on, of all the roles he played in people's lives during his ministry, it is the role of master teacher which is compelling to me.  Laurens van der Post, a Jungian, has commented that we should learn the story of Jesus so that we may see our own stories within this amazing archetypal story more clearly.  This is Jesus' primary role and task as a great teacher of humanity: to help us to understand with wisdom and clarity our own life story in the midst of the great story of life.

I must admit a certain bias to you from the outset; Jesus has me hooked.  Never have I read about or encountered anyone who, from the outer periphery to the inner core and back again, is so truly of one mind, one body, one spirit.  Jesus was as tender as only the strong have the spiritual strength to be tender.  He was in everyone's corner, seeing right through them, but empowering them at the same time.  He was a preacher, teacher, healer, caregiver, hero, friend, and prophet.  Jesus possessed the great longing, or the grand passion, to pull heaven and earth into one, to combine the sexual and the sacred, body and spirit, human and divine, the agony and the ecstasy of human existence.

His life was not about forgiving sins and dying on a cross for us in some dark and lonesome valley.  His life was all about embodying and embracing the deep questions of the heart.

More than Savior or Lord, or even brother or friend, it is the teacher and mediating qualities of Jesus that demand our attention today.  Paul reminds us of these qualities of Jesus in this morning's lesson:

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind and having the same love. . . . Have this in mind among yourselves which is also in Christ Jesus, who though being in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself taking the form of a servant, born as a human being.

It is the humility of Christ that draws me in, his willingness to be a presence in our lives, but his remarkable determination not to be the answer.  Too many Christians have made of Christ the answer to all their problems, and it is in doing this that the Church may have gotten a bad name and stopped seeking Christ's presence.  Too many of us yearn, not for answers, but for The Answer, with a capital A; and we want it delivered to us in such a fashion as to remove all fear and doubt.  This is the essence of Messiah-ism in our culture, in all its religious and non-religious forms.  We see it today, even this very morning, in Iraq, as the Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish jockey for power --all in the name of rightful ownership and having The Answer, the Big A.  When you are so sure you have the answer and the right to assert that surety in the name of God, it becomes a very dangerous day indeed.

As our Teacher and mediator, Christ encourages us to live out our own lives with love, affection, sympathy, and joy; without selfishness or conceit, but with all humility and grace. Where would the peace process be now if the rules were humility and grace, rather than right and might?

What Jesus teaches us is this: "There is no real answer to all your problems, and I am it."  His mediating nature goes even farther as he says to us, "I refuse to solve your problems, but I am also the solution to all you've been wondering about."

For those of us whose next great adventure is the leaving of this life, Jesus has a remarkable lesson to teach us as well: for we can approach our end days and years with the same passion and vigor as Jesus possessed in his last days.  Paul reminds us he was obedient unto death, even death on a cross.  But, obedient to what?  Obedient to the creative, redemptive work of love and forgiveness in his life and work.

In his teaching ministry, Jesus sought to empower, instead of taking power.  He sought to embody love and justice, rather than disengaging or speaking from the head up.  Jesus brought love and light into every heart he encountered.  His wisdom was ignited by the humility of knowing rather than pride of thinking.  He brought a passion to his teaching ministry--a complete grasp of the role of mediator, one who stands in for another and takes upon himself the difficult and painful task so that others may learn and grow into the people God calls us to become.

Questions of the heart arise from every generation and from every people and nation on earth. Generations have sought answers, concrete information, a source of salvation, a promise of the messiah, a savior, the compassionate Buddha, and the all-knowing Allah.

The answer to the questions, the deep questions of our hearts, the answer Arthur Bud Bryant knew and conveyed to me, is not an answer to be taught, but lived.  For it is presence.  Christ is the presence of love in our lives.

The teaching ministry of a church is not to provide answers to the questions posed by the mind, but to equip its members with the tools to live in the presence of the questions of the heart.  The teaching ministry of the church is not to provide easy answers, but to open and empower the heart and mind to live in the vast mystery of the creativity of God and the presence of Christ.  The teaching ministry of the church is to enable its members to work out their faith with fear and trembling--no self-made, easy salvation here--but with compassionate love, a search for God's truth in the midst of community.

Therefore my beloved, in my presence, but much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for God's good pleasure.

For God's good pleasure, the pleasure of love and grace is fulfilled in you.  Encouragement, consolation, compassion, and love are ours because of Christ's eternal presence in our lives, not as Answer to the questions of our hearts, but as Presence as we live them. Amen.