Memorial Church, Harvard University – April 1, 2015
The Reverend Luther Zeigler
“Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” (1 Cor. 3:18-19)
Happy April Fool’s Day! Some might think it incongruous that April Fool’s Day should fall smack dab in the middle of Holy Week this year. Holy Week, after all, is a solemn time as we re-live the events of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem and accompany him on the painful journey to the Cross. The truth, however, is that “foolishness” is very much at the heart of Christian living.
Nouwen did not have an especially happy experience at Harvard. Rightly or wrongly, he found Harvard to be overly preoccupied with academic achievement and worldly success. To paraphrase his friend, Robert Ellsberg, Nouwen was a person who wanted to generate community, to foster a deeper spirituality in his students, to talk about how one cultivates a close relationship with Jesus, and he was doing this at a time when most of the graduate students at Harvard wanted to stick to the academic study of religion. As a consequence, Nouwen was seen by many, Ellsberg writes, “as a bit of a nut, an evangelizer of some sort,” who just didn’t get the Harvard culture.
So, in 1985, Nouwen decided to leave Harvard. At the time, he was sufficiently famous that he could have gone on to any of a number of other prestigious universities or seminaries.
But instead, Nouwen felt called to join L’Arche, a network of homes for intellectually disabled persons. L’Arche’s philosophy is not primarily to provide services, or programs, or resources to disabled persons, but rather, in the words of its founder, to say loud and clear to such persons: “we love you, and with you, we want to create a place of belonging.” Nouwen would spend the last decade of his life in residence at a L’Arche community near Toronto.
Many of Nouwen’s friends at the time thought he was a fool for leaving a world-renown university to live an obscure and difficult existence with a group of people who weren’t able to care for themselves and were on no one’s list for a Nobel Prize. Yet, Nouwen intuited that he just might find God there.
And so he did. Nouwen writes: “Living in a L’Arche community is seeing a world where people open themselves up in a spontaneous way, no contrivance, no artifice, no strategizing . . . . The people in this world are uninterested in impressing you with achievements and credentials. They are just themselves – broken and without cosmetics or rationalization. They helped me see beyond the easy divisions we put in place between the well and the unwell, and they gave me the courage to relate to them not in spite of my frailties, but in and through them.”
Nouwen often told the story of a little disabled boy, Jacques, who was making his first holy communion. After the liturgy the family had a party, at which an uncle said to the boy’s mother: “Wasn’t it a beautiful liturgy? The only sad part is that Jacques didn’t understand anything.” The little boy happened to overhear his uncle and, with tears in his eyes, said to his mother, “Don’t worry, Mummy, Jesus loves me as I am.”
This is the gospel truth into which L’Arche communities try to live, and into which Nouwen sought to live. What Jesus offers us, Nouwen came to understand, is a fundamental identity of truthfulness. Not so much the “objective,” impersonal, and academic pursuit of veritas of the university, but rather the inter-subjective truthfulness of that little boy, Jacques: a consciousness that God loves us in our weakness, and that because he does, we need no longer seek glory and accolades from others, but are instead free to love God’s world with the abandon of a fool.
Let us pray: Gracious and loving God, who chose what is foolish to shame the wise and what is weak to shame the strong, save us from the vanities of this world and the conceits of our own mind, so that we might find grace in weakness and become fools for your love’s sake. In Jesus’ name. Amen.