David Gergen’s Homily at Morning Prayers, Harvard’s Memorial Church

By David Gergen

For today’s text, I would like to draw upon one of my favorite passages from the Bible —
one familiar to all of us — Micah 6: 6-8

6. Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? shall I
come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old?

7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

8 He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee,
but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?

Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with thy God — Have you ever noticed that some of
the best advice for life comes in sets of three? Not four, not two but three — there is
something about three that moves mind, body and soul.

My wife Anne and I had the privilege of celebrating his 90th birthday with President
Ford. Sure enough, he told us three instructions from his mom when he was a child had
served him well all his life: work hard, tell the truth… and come to dinner on time.

Here in this community, we tend to argue a lot about the requirements of justice and
mercy. This morning, I would recommend there is value as well in thinking more fully
about the humility that is demanded of us.

We are rightly proud of what others have built here at Harvard: the finest research
university in the world, the best faculty, the most promising students — and indeed, one
of the finest Christian churches here at the heart of the campus.

But beyond these walls, we are seen as the elite …and as elitists. Half the nation’s
citizens come from families earning less than $50,000 — at Harvard College, it’s fewer than
twenty percent. Harvard has won more Rhodes than any other university — 6 out of 32 this
past year. Our graduates usually win the bests jobs, too — five years out of our business
school, the mediansalary is over 8 and a half times that of other Americans. This past
November, the presidential contest pitted two Harvard graduates against each other. No
wonder we are often seen as a breed apart.

Yet, in my experience, we need to remind ourselves continually that we don’t have a
monopoly on understanding or wisdom. When I graduated from the law school years
ago, I thought I had the world by the tail. Far from it. I joined the Navy for three and
a half years and my first assignment was a damage control officer on a ship in Asia.
(Training in damage control, by the way, was great preparation for government).

I was assigned leadership of some 50 enlisted seamen — most of them high school
dropouts. As I got to know them, I found they had all sorts of problems — unpaid bills,
drugs, STDs, the lot. But when a fire broke out on board, they were there instantly,
wielding hoses and axes. I stood by helplessly. When the generators went out and
we were dead in the water, they got the lights on again. I held the flashlight. Saving
men, saving the ship — they were far better than I. Living on board with those enlisted
men, hearing their hopes and dreams, seeing them at work was as rich an education as
studying here.

I was reminded of those days when Anne and I moved to Cambridge a dozen years
ago. Alan Simpson was already here, directing the Institute of Politics after serving
as a Senator from Wyoming. Alan quickly pulled me aside and said, “David, just
because you are coming here to Harvard, don’t let it go to your head.” He said he never
graduated from college cum laude but “thank the laude”.

And he told me a story about a rancher out in Wyoming who was out on his land when a
young fella drove up in a pick-up truck, jumped out, and said, “Old timer, if I tell you how
many sheep you have on this ranch, will you give me one?”

“I reckon, Sonny, how many do I have?”

“Nine hundred and seventy four”.

“You’re right, Sonny. Nobody has ever guessed that before. You’re entitled, you go
right ahead and pick up one of my sheep.”

Well, the young fella went over, picked up an animal, threw it in the back of his pick-up
and started to drive off.”

“Hey, wait a minute, Sonny,” the rancher yelled out. “If I tell you where you went to
school, can I have my animal back?”

“Fair’s fair. Where did I go to school?”

“You went to Harvard, didn’t you?”

“Wow, how did you know that?”

“It was easy, Son, you just took my dog.”

And so it goes. We all have our strengths, we all have our weaknesses. What it takes
to build a country — what it takes to build a beloved community — is a respect for the
dignity and worth of others, no matter their background, and a belief that we are all
God’s children.

In interpreting the prophet Micah, emphasis is often given to the religious question: what
does it mean to walk humbly “with God”? Does it mean walking with fear of God? With
reverence? Or, as Augustine wrote, a belief that humility before God is the foundation
of other virtues?

Worthy questions. My message this morning is that to walk humbly with God surely
means walking humbly with others in our everyday lives. Strikingly, this past week, in
his final homily in St. Peter’s, Pope Benedict chose the theme of humility. Jesus, he
said, “denounces religious hypocrisy, behaviour that wants to show off, attitudes that
seek applause and approval. The true disciple does not serve himself or the ‘public’, but
his Lord, in simplicity and generosity.”

So, yes, let us do justly, let us love mercy, but let us also remember — especially those
of us blessed to be associated with this proud institution — to walk humbly with God.
And with all our fellow members of His Creation.

Leave a Reply