Sermon Archive

Sunday March 26, 2017
4:00 pm - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Dn Horvath, Seminarian

Henri Nouwen: Being Church
Lenten series on Praying with Holy Men and Holy Women.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Henri Nouwen died only 20 years ago, yet his writings and his works on spirituality and prayer have changed millions of lives. Born in Holland, became a Roman Catholic priest in 1957. He taught at the University of Notre Dame, and Yale and Harvard Divinity Schools. He wrote over 40 books, which have been published in over 22 languages. Nouwen wrote very directly about our longing for meaning, belonging, and intimacy and, he integrated our longing with a powerful vision of service and social justice. In other words, Nouwen wrote about prayer. Prayer that changes lives; ours and the world about us.

But Nouwen, being human, was not without his faults and what interests me most about him was his crisis of purpose that started to really take root in the early 1970s. Nouwen found that, after years of study, writing and lecturing about prayer and serving others, he had not actually connected his prayer life in any meaningful way to the service of others. For most of his life, Nouwen was wracked with self-doubt, a fair amount of narcissism and a fear of rejection – a result of Nouwen’s intense and very human desire for worldly affirmation and fame. Yet in 1974, he started in earnest the journey to find what God was really calling him to do in this world.

First, in an effort to connect his spirituality and this idea of servanthood, he became an associate member of the Trappist monastery in Genesee, New York during a ninth month sabbatical from Yale Divinity School. As well as keeping the Liturgy of Hours, he was expected to cook and clean for the community, and collect granite rocks for a new church that was being built on the grounds – all work that was quite out of the norm for Professor Nouwen. It was his first foray into living the intersection of a life of prayer and service that he had heretofore only wrote about. Yet he still struggled to align his spirituality into a larger relational context and would do so for the next 10 years until his retirement from academia.

Second, after his retirement from Harvard Divinity School, Nouwen, who could have rested on his academic laurels and simply enjoyed his retirement, joined the L’Arche Daybreak community, living and working with six disabled people and their assistants, and was to remain there until his death in 1996. The journey was not an easy one for Nouwen. He no longer could rely on his books, his lectures or his reputation as the foundations for his self-identity. He was among people who had never read his books, for whom his lectures meant nothing and who had never heard about him. Henri’s job, initially, was to care for one specific core member (in this case, a severely physically disabled young man named Adam), and his responsibilities ranged from waking, bathing and feeding Adam every morning, to getting him into his wheelchair and pushing him over a road full of potholes to his day school. Nouwen the Wounded tending to Adam the Broken, in a larger community that only existed to the extent that there was a willingness to serve others, seemingly gave Nouwen his first real and tangible encounter with the Body of Christ.

Of the many aspects of Nouwen’s life that I could have focused on, I focus on his struggle between prayer and service, because a similar balance between my prayer life and how that prayer life can lead me to serve others in the midst of our often messy and complicated world, has been at the core of my Lenten meditations this year. And as one who is recently ordained, soon to graduate from seminary, and focused on finding my first call as a priest, I have been studying closely how churches, and their clergy and laity alike, connect their Sunday experience of prayer and worship, with serving the Body of Christ beyond their front doors. Too often we see church as a commodity to be consumed, and we have perfected the exercise of “going to church” (which Jesus did not ask anyone to do), as opposed to “being Church” (which he most certainly charges us to be). We may go to a particular church because of the fine liturgy, or the transcendent music, or its beautiful stained glass windows, or the endless offerings of adult education classes. These things can become a church’s reason for being, and heaps of effort, time and money go into maintaining them, even if they do not necessarily prove the old adage “If you build it, they will come.”

As part of my own Lenten discipline, I constantly come back to the question: “What does it mean to be God’s Church in the absence of those things?” All of which, I have to admit, I very much enjoy!

“You will be my witnesses,” Jesus tells the disciples just before he leaves them. Their task -- our task -- is to witness to Jesus by carrying out his work in the world, the work of healing, comforting, serving, loving all people. That is what it means to “be church” and that is what Jesus calls us to do. “Being church” certainly doesn’t just mean showing up on Sunday morning and checking off “worship” as one of many activities in our life. “Being church” is a daily activity and the primary task of our lives as children of God and witnesses to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.

We are all certainly nourished in this physical space we call church, but as a means to an end- so that we can be the Church that serves Christ in others when we leave it.

Nouwen says: "The marvelous vision of [God’s] Kingdom… calls for its realization in our day-to-day lives. Instead of being an escapist dream, it challenges us to anticipate what it promises. Every time we forgive our neighbor, every time we make a child smile, every time we show compassion to a suffering person, every time we arrange a bouquet of flowers, prevent pollution…[or] work for peace and justice among peoples and nations we are making the vision come true.

"We must remind one another constantly of the vision. Whenever it comes alive in us we will find new energy to live it out, right where we are. Instead of making us escape real life, this beautiful vision gets us involved."

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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