March 5

A Communion Meditation: In Conversation with Nouwen

By Marsh Chapel

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Romans 5:12-19

Matthew 4:1-11

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A Journey Through Scripture

We journey together this Lent through conversation.

We enter each Lord’s Day into close conversation with Holy Scripture.  We enter each Lord’s Day into conversation with our Lenten theological conversation partner, this year, 2017, the Rev. Dr. Henri Nouwen, of blessed memory.  We enter each Lord’s Day into conversation with life about us, and the living souls around us, and this day, as is our custom, around the Lord’s Table, bread and cup, thanksgiving, presence and remembrance.

We have come to love the Holy Scripture, a source of abiding inspiration, a canon or rule or measure of the matters of faith more real than the very real life around us, a rhythmic accompaniment in holiness to the daily walk of faith in life.  We do love the Holy Scripture, and account its authority in our midst, primarily in pragmatic terms.  Come Sunday, that is, it is simply our custom to read and interpret the Holy Scripture, on the journey of holy living.

Our lessons today introduce conversation, and so are more than apt for the first Sunday this Lent. In widely different ways, Romans 5 and Matthew 4 are the open volleys in substantive conversation.

You recall that Paul introduces himself to the church in Rome, prior to his expected visit, by the writing of the Letter to the Romans, his magnum opus, his formal appearance clothed almost entirely in theological language.  ‘Here I am’, says Paul, to the church he has yet to meet.  Now he may also have wanted to sum up here in 55ad what he already had already written earlier to the Thessalonians, Corinthians, and Galatians.  He may also, let us be candid, have desired to moderate, qualify, and temper what he wrote to the Galatians in a white heat, in total honest transparency, and in anger.  Paul’s Letter to the Romans gives two or three chapters each, beginning in Romans 1, to five themes, Sin, Salvation (where we are today Romans 5), Spirit, Israel, and Church. 5 ways of meeting the Romans, somewhat on their terms, and somewhat on his.

So these words you have heard, somewhat strange, even odd, to our ears, open a conversation.  How?  With heartfelt honesty and technical precision regarding pain and struggle in life.  Life is struggle, and the Apostle here captures your struggle with a recognition of sin, the gone wrongness in life, by a recognition of the death, the end of every life, and by a recognition of law—one might say religion—as cause, lens and entry into understanding of sin and death. .  Pau’s dense, complex argument about sin, and death, and their origin, and their interrelation, may strain us a bit, in a limited moment of interpretation, but, at a minimum, are, in their form, and content, quite true to what we experience.  Though we do not deign to acknowledge it so, most hours, the fragility and brevity of our lives is ever present to us.  Though we do not prefer to face it, most days, the leaning tendency toward what can and does go wrong in life, is regularly present to us.  Paul, using his received tradition, traces the latter (sin) back through the former (death) all the way to the beginning (Adam).  An awareness of the proximity of death and the tendency toward sin can become, as surely it was for Paul, for us a grounding in the ground of life.  All sin, all fall short of the glory of God.  All flesh, all flesh, all flesh is grass.

Not Paul only, but Matthew also, today, assays to explain for us, and to us, and to us, a part of our condition, the struggle in life.  Matthew begins the conversation about the adult life and ministry of Jesus, with the story of the Temptation.  Life is hard, life is struggle, life is struggle with all manner of temptation.  In a narrative, three-point sermon, a stylized and fabulous remembrance of an early Christian preacher, taken up by Matthew and Luke, Jesus wrestles with the devil, over greed and pride and power.   Every day is a struggle, says this preacher, and every day in the struggle we are held in the memory of Jesus our Lord who knew struggle, knew our struggle, knew this very struggle, high on a mountain, contesting o diabalos.

You will ask whether your preacher believes in the devil (note the shift from Satan to Devil here).  No, he does not.  But he does remember this Lent of 2017 the voice of Hans Frei in the Lent of 1977, in the common room of Union Theological Seminary, as Frei remembered the words of Emil Brunner circa Lent 1947, just after the great horror of World War II.  Asked the same, ‘Do you believe in the Devil?’, Brunner replied in 1947, as remembered by Frei in 1977 and quoted here today in 2017: Yes.  For two reasons.  First, Jesus mentions him the Bible.  Second, I have seen him.  Conversation begins well with utter candid, frank, honesty about our condition:  mortal, prone to harm others, children of Adam, acquainted with, and on familial terms with sin and death.

The temptations presented in this early Christian sermon, a fabled imagination of Jesus struggling with the Devil, are ‘to work miracles for the sake of immediate need, to give a convincing sign, and to exercise political power’ (IBD loc.cit.).  In a word, the temptation is to confuse the penultimate with the ultimate.  The work of faith, as upheld in our Sacrament today, labors to keep us free from this kind of idolatry.  Him only shall you serve. 

Many among us, and all of us many times in a lifetime, know well the struggle with temptation that one way or another promotes lesser loyalties to supplant, or obscure, or eclipse one great loyalty.  The cruciform path, the way of love, an arduous journey as Lent reminds us, asks of us an upward climb.  There is a thrill in the ascent of the next high hill, but there is an ache in the knees, too.


A Journey With Nouwen

We also journey this Lent in conversation, and in the fair company, the loving presence of Henri Nouwen.

Where are we?

Physics, Chemistry, Biology—they are all wonderful pursuits.  Earth Science stands out, though, as the mode of inquiry which helps us locate ourselves.  The manner of the meandering of rivers, the tidal pull, the history of the glaciers, the height of mountains and depths of deserts, the solar system, galaxy, and cosmos, the longitude and latitude—it is no platitude—help us to stand, and walk, and move.

Where are we?

We are entering Lent, a time and journey of preparation and discipline.  On the whole, come Lent, we turn for a moment inward, more toward the individual than the communal, more toward personal than social holiness, more toward deep personal faith than toward active social involvement, though, of course, they are both and lastingly and daily ours.  You might find one new, daily, habit to cultivate this Lent.

We are walking with our lectionary readings from Holy Scripture.  This year it is the Gospel of Matthew, and his emphasis on discipleship, which guides us week by week.  We read the lessons of Holy Scripture each week, all through the year, and endeavor to interpret them for our own time, even as they were themselves traditional interpretations of tradition in their own time.  A muscular liturgy, a rigorous ordered worship, a challenging sermonic address, a musical echo both familiar and foreign—deep roots that is—will sustain us over the next decade and its various humiliations which have no predetermined outcomes.  Matthew is our Gospel, and today his own introduction to our Lenten season, in the familiar account of the Lord’s temptation.

Throughout the year 2017, at Marsh Chapel, we are engaged in ministry with attention to conversation.  Our Summer National Preacher Series will engage in conversation about new directions in discipleship.  Our Lenten Series, beginning today, will engage in conversation with Henri Nouwen.  Over the past decade, Lent by Lent, we have identified a theological conversation partner for the Lenten sermons, broadly speaking, out of the Calvinist tradition.  For the next decade, we turn to the Catholic tradition.   With Calvin we encountered the chief resource for others we engaged over the last ten years—voices like those of Jonathan Edwards (2015), Paul of Tarsus (2014), Marilyn Robinson (2013), Jacques Ellul (2012), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin, (2011), Karl Barth (2010), and Gabriel Vahanian (2007), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008).  Over the next decade, beginning this Lent 2017, the Marsh pulpit, a traditionally Methodist one, will turn left, not right, toward Rome not Geneva, and we will preach with, and learn from the Roman Catholic tradition, so important in the last 200 years in New England, and some of its great divines including Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, Erasmus, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, and others, one per year.  Perhaps you will suggest a name or two, not from Geneva, but from Rome?  For those who recall, even if dimly, the vigor and excitement of Vatican II, there may well be other names to add to the list.  We begin with Henri Nouwen.

Given our interest through the year in conversation, Nouwen seemed like a natural choice.  So in these weeks, as we preach the Gospel grounded in the interpretation of Matthew, we will make some space for dialogue with the Rev. Dr. Henri Nouwen.  Nouwen spoke to the last generation as part of a chorus of talented women and men working at the intersection of psychology and religion.  Think of Seward Hiltner at Princeton.  Recall the voice of Ann Belford Ulanov (a Tillich protégé) at Columbia and Union in New York.  Give some thought to the many voices and faces of our own Danielsen Center here at Boston University.  Nouwen in New Haven at Yale, but also for time here at Harvard, was part of this chorus, during a time, now past, of avid interest in religion and psychology.  In pastoral ministry, with the exception of preparation for preaching, there is hardly a more substantial, fruitful area of preparation than this now somewhat forgotten, even superannuated, preparation for pastoral conversation.  The minister wants to overhear, at a deeper level, what the parishioner, at depth, experiences.  Probably it is not coincidence that the demise of pastoral psychology has occurred alongside the rising tide of mechanical communication in the newer technologies.  Capacities for listening and speaking ebb and flow, wax and wane, in church and culture. Conversation has no grandchildren.

So, our sermons, somewhat in teaching format this Lent, will engage Henri Nouwen.  We begin today, attentive to conversation, and looking toward communion.  Over the next four weeks (Br Whitney taking March 12) we rely on Nouwen’s books, Reaching Out, The Life of the Beloved, The Wounded Healer, and Daybreak.  Read with us, as you have time, energy, interest and capacity.


A Journey Through Life

We journey together this Lent in conversation, with one another, our this morning, toward communion.  A word on each.

How are we to practice conversation, itself a means of grace?  Especially when that conversation involves difference, division, diversity?  How do we trace the hidden harmonies (J Wiggins) therein?  We have here no word of the Lord on this.  Here though are some suggestions for you as you practice authentic conversation.  Pray. Listen. Pause. Reflect. Respond (speak, pause, shun).  First, as you anticipate a meaningful conversation, pray about it.  Place person or people, topic or interest, setting or timing, desired outcome and response, in the light of God, in the light of God’s love.  God is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom.  Second, when in conversation, listen with care, listen to everything, listen with heart as well as mind, listen.  What is heard and what is overheard?  Be able to recite, repeat, rehearse what you have heard.  Third, Pause. Take a breath.  Fourth, reflect on what you have heard—think about it, in real time.  Fear not a reflective silence.  Fear not the fallow, the winter, the quiet, Lent. “Let me reflect for a minute on what you have said”, you might say.  Fifth, fashion some response out of or out of a mixture of ingredients on your cooking shelf.  You might respond by speaking: “well, here’s then what I think”.  You might respond by being quiet: “I need some more time to ponder this”.  You might respond by shunning: “I think we need to part company for a time”.  Or there may be some combination of these.  Yes, the arts of conversation—prayer, listening, reflection, response—are neglected in our culture, in our age, but we have the time of struggle, the time of journey, the time of Lent to reclaim them.

And today communion.

Hear Nouwen on communion, as we come to the Lord’s table:The word that seems best to summarize the desire of the human heart is ‘communion.’  Wherever we look it is communion that we seek. Once you are in communion with God, you have the eyes to see and the ears to hear other people in whom God has also found a dwelling place.

            Baptism opens the door to the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the sacrament through which Jesus enters into an intimate, permanent communion with us. It is the sacrament of the table. It is the sacrament of food and drink. It is the sacrament of daily nurture. While baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime event, the Eucharist can be a monthly, weekly, or even daily occurrence. Jesus gave us the Eucharist as a constant memory of his life and death. Not a memory that simply makes us think of him but a memory that makes us members of his body. That is why Jesus on the evening before he died took bread saying, “This is my Body,” and took the cup saying, “This is my Blood.” By eating the Body and drinking the Blood of Christ, we become one with him.

We journey together this Lent through conversation.  God grant us grace for the struggle!

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

One Response to “A Communion Meditation: In Conversation with Nouwen”

  1. From Milton Jordan

    Dean Hill, I listened to this service yesterday and was moved by your sermon. Back in one of my Seminary classses Albert Outler often commented on the impact of Roman Catholicism on John Wesley. Outler had recently returned from Vatican II and that experience was often part his lectures. With a little effort I may be able to track down some details of his comments. Thank you for stimulating my memory and my thinking with this sermon. Milton