How Shall We Then Live?
“I never saw it coming!” Those are the words with which I opened my remarks for my biography for the 50th reunion of the class of 1960 – to be added to other people’s remarks and memories and reflections. “I never saw it coming!” That summed up the last 50 years for me. So much has happened in my life that I never would have dreamed would happen, never guessed.
Freshman year, 1956, I sat over there, having just joined the Chapel Choir. But I was singing in the choir only because I love to sing – and we were required to come to chapel, freshman and sophomore year, a minimum number of times in order to graduate. So I thought that was a good place to pass the requirement and get to sing at the same time. And sitting over there, if someone has said to me, “Someday you’re going to be up in that pulpit where Dean Earnest Gordon had so much to share with us”, I either would have laughed or passed out! I never saw it coming - even that I would ever become active in the church, much less an ordained minister. But here I am!
We, the class of 1960 have encountered over the years many things that we never saw coming. The 60’s themselves! Do you remember the 60’s? I once heard a comedian reflect that anybody who thinks he remembers the 60’s wasn’t there! But I remember. I remember the twist! My senior year, the spring of 1960, I’d never even heard of the twist; and I came back for a football game that fall and everyone was doing it – all the students. And of course, so many other things: Vietnam, JFK, Martin Luther King – the civil rights movement and his assassination; Bobby Kennedy, Woodstock! On and on. What are your memories of the 60’s? Things we never saw coming.
Then on into the 70’s, and the 80’s – and the whole 20th century is gone and we’re facing an incredible 21st century. Who knows what’s coming, even tomorrow, about which we will say, “I never saw it coming!”? We live in an age of uncertainty. Are there any constants still around? We live in an age of ambiguity. What are the constants that keep on, that abide and endure?
Francis Shaeffer in the 70’s, some of you will remember, was quite a respected thinker, theologian, philosopher, historian. He wrote a book and developed a TV series on the “Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture”. And he called it, “How Should We Then Live?” I’ve stolen the title for my sermon because it’s an important question. As we move on from the reunions we’ve just attended or just from worshipping God on this the first day of the week – as we leave this place, how should we then live?
Which brings me to 1st Corinthians, the 13th chapter. “Now Faith, Hope and Love abide, these three.” Probably the place this reading is heard most often is at weddings – right? I’ve had only one or two weddings in my whole career that I wasn’t requested to read it as part of the ceremony. But it has implications far beyond just two people joining their lives together.
That came home to me a number of years ago when a bride and groom actually asked me to preach on 1 Cor. 13, not just read it. As I thought about what I might say to them I realized that it had to be short and sweet because everybody would be eager to see the exchange of vows and then get on to the reception. But I wanted to say it in a clear way – a way that would stick with them. And I was also aware that what I was sharing with them had something to say, not only to them starting their lives out together, but to the whole human family really, and even perhaps something to say to us today.
So I want to share it with you. Even though it is not something that would even begin to qualify for some of the courses offered by the Religion Department here at Princeton. I went to hear Eric Gregory, Professor of Religion Friday afternoon, talk about Realism and Hope, Augustine, Niebuhr and Obama. He was talking about Faith, Hope and Love. It was fascinating! But he didn’t say anything quite like what I told the couple then on their wedding day.
What I said to them, what I invited them to do, was to “Go and be Gullible!” Gullible enough to have Faith, gullible enough to have Hope, gullible to have Love. Now that may seem out of character for a university campus like Princeton’s. Too unsophisticated, not intellectual enough. But let me say, I wasn’t telling them to go and be clueless and simple-minded and unaware. Instead to recognize that there is enough cynicism in the world to last for centuries, and we need something that stands up against the cynics and offers another alternative.
I was offering something – gullibility - that can be intentional, can be a choice. We can choose to be “taken in” by truth that is most often counter-intuitive! And we’ve got to be gullible enough to hear it. Consider the hymn we’re about to sing when I’m finished my sermon. It’s by a person I have had a friendship with, Brian Wren. Consider the second verse:
Christ is alive! No longer bound
To distant years in Palestine,
But saving, healing, hear and now,
And touching every place and time.
Come on Brian! Maybe that’s a beautiful metaphor and we can figuratively feel it’s nice, but really to say, “Christ is alive”? And “in every time and place”? Here and now with us in this room? How gullible does he think we are? But that’s what I said to the kids: go and be gullible. It’s what 1st Corinthians is saying, I believe.
That “hymn” by St. Paul, isn’t just about Love. It’s about Faith and Hope and Love. Can we go and be gullible enough to trust because that’s what faith is about? To trust ourselves, to trust others – even with a mixed history that has gone before? Can we give others – other peoples, other situations, other countries – second chances?
Can we be trusting enough to be honest? Sometimes to say things that we’re not sure will bring joy and happiness, and are confrontive, but still to be honest and trust that the honesty is important.
I have always – from probably my freshman year here – always held honesty as a high value. I’ve expected honesty of myself and expected it of others, for the last 50 years. And as I’ve thought about it I’ve realized it began, had its germination, here at Princeton – with the Honor System.
I will never forget my first mid-term exam my freshman year. I was sitting in a room with 20 other guys [it was all “guys” then], in every other desk, spread out a bit, with no one else in the room! No professor, no proctor, nobody! We sat there for an hour taking the exam.
That was the university’s policy. You were on your honor – to prove what you could do with honesty. And I was flabbergasted, and I still am somewhat. How does a university decide to do that? To trust students, who are ambitious, want to look good, prove what they can do, have superior achievements? How does the university trust an undergraduate body to be on their honor? I’ve never forgotten it. Can we be gullible enough to trust because that’s what faith is about?
Can we also be gullible enough to dream because that’s what hope is about? To know that there is somehow a complete, absolute reality beyond us that is hardly able to be comprehended, is unimaginable? Can we envision possibilities, even when there seem to be none. Can we anticipate new beginnings, even when all the doors seem to be shut before us? Can we dream? Can we expect to be “surprised by joy”? That was the title of C.S. Lewis’ autobiography – Surprised By Joy.
I live in Florida now, not far from where Thomas Edison did much of his work. And I’ve thought, how did he even begin to have the hope that what he thought he was going to be able to do would work? How did he have the imagination? He was a dreamer in a way, although a scientist. He was pretty gullible. And yet it worked!
Then can we be gullible enough to care? To have compassion; to suffer with others and for others? To be vulnerable? To be real? To care.
Some of you may be familiar with a book that came out a couple of years ago by Rachel Naomi Remen: “Kitchen Table Wisdom”. She is an MD, and in one of her essays, called The Meeting Place, she tells of a colleague of hers, a doctor, who died of a heart attack at age 56. He was was a consummate healer, a very caring physician who took time really to be with his patients. And she’s shares that after everything was finished – the funeral, closing his office – the patients started coming. She writes:
For almost a year afterwards, several times a week I would open the door of my office and find one of Hal’s patients sitting in the common waiting room. At first I would worry that they didn’t know about Hal and I would have to tell them, but they all knew. They had just come to the place where they had experienced his listening, his special way of seeing and valuing them, just to sit there for a bit. . . Many patients came. It was terribly, terribly moving.
There was a man who cared. Can we be gullible enough to care, because that’s what love is about? Can we go and be gullible?
Now what I didn’t say to the couple – partly because I didn’t want to take the time, but mostly because it didn’t really occur to me until long after the wedding – was that at the heart of it all: there is God! At the heart of 1st Corinthians 13 there is God. If we can live in a gullible way, we may just create an environment in which others and we ourselves can discover our most amazing God who eagerly waits to engage us: as Father – in Faith; as Spirit – in Hope; as Son – in Love! 1st Corinthians 13 is not so much about who we are as it is about who God is, and how God is.
It shows us a God who has Faith - in us. A God who has entrusted to us, the human family, the future of the entire world – has entrusted to us the Kingdom! Has entrusted to us the only Son – even though we fail again and again. Ours is a God gives us not just 2nd chances, but 70 times 7 chances!
And ours is a God who has Hope for us. Unrealized dreams, great expectations! Who is constantly making “all things new”! And will do so when we leave this place.
And ours is a God who has Love for us – compassion! Who suffers with us and for us. Who is vulnerable to us, who is real to us – became real to us in the coming, the incarnation of Jesus Christ! Ours is a God who in preposterous ways cares for us!
If we take all of those together and say, how is God? Who is God?, what comes through to me in a very clear way is that ours is a God, in a basic way, who is – gullible! Ours is a gullible God – who chooses to be gullible. Now maybe that’s going too far for some of you. But take it home with you. Our gullible God?
At the very least, please acknowledge and know that the One we worship, God of Gods and Lord of Lords, is One whose constant Faith and Hope and Love abide, endure forever! Know that. Believe it. Live it! And then ask yourself - How then shall we live? How then shall we live?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.