Peter Gomes: A Sermonic Life

Is it possible for one's whole life to be a sermon? The life and witness of Peter Gomes would seem to be evidence that it is. Not just the classic sermons that have been collected into much beloved volumes, but all of the adventures, relationships, victories, trials and journeys all seem to proclaim a message of Good News for those with ears to hear. Yet what was the message? What was the scandalous gospel proclaimed from the pulpit of this amazing and most unique life?

The Rev. Peter John Gomes was the Pusey Minister at Memorial Church and the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard University. For some ministers, their pulpit or title gives them their name. One would expect such for the Minister to Harvard University, but not in this case. It was not Harvard that brought Peter fame, but rather his brilliant preaching gift, his charm, his aristocratic griot-like story telling ability, his deep love of the Bible and indeed his deep love of God. I'd add to that his courage.

Along with preaching weekly in Memorial church, teaching in the college and the divinity school, Peter was pastor and chaplain to Harvard, which meant being there for students, faculty, staff in times of need, listening to undergrads who wondered if God was real, officiating at weddings of alumni, serving as a voice of reason and voice of truth to administrators, bearing a treasury of institutional memory, and offering invocations and benedictions at three and a half decades of graduations. And much more. Along with his duties in Cambridge, he was a bestselling author, an in-demand guest preacher and speaker, member of many boards and institutions on both sides of the Atlantic, and public minister whose prayers were voiced at presidential inaugurations and in royal chapels.

I'd heard of Peter for years before I first met him during my seminary years. He wasn't what I expected. I suppose he wasn't what anyone expected, and that was a part of what made him so special. He was one of those rare human beings who free themselves from the boundaries, limits and projections of others. Peter Gomes was free and it is that freedom that allowed him to soar and to be magnificent. Perhaps this is point one of the three point sermon (a homiletic rule which Peter was free enough to break mind you!) that was his life.

For most of my young adult life, Peter was a distant public figure. He was that author who wrote that book a cousin gave me for whatever that holiday was. Eventually, I read that good book and was surprised at how wonderful it was. I wanted to learn more about him. So on the day that I moved to Boston to study at Andover Newton, I decided to go and meet him. He was not there, his assistant told me, but he was going to be speaking that night at Old South Church.

This was perfect as I had heard that Gomes was "America's Best Preacher," and now I could find out for myself.

It's probably a spiritually dangerous exercise to "rank" preachers. How does one measure or quantify the pulpit abilities of a man or woman? There are ministers who are superb orators, whose mastery over language and wordsmithing talents grab the attention of the listeners. Others employ a genius in the art and theatrics of preaching, delivering a strong message while enrapturing or even entertaining. Still others are expert theologians who, while not wowing with speaking ability, leave mouths agape with their profundity. Still others seem to simply have something special, an anointing perhaps, and things happen when they preach -- tears, changed hearts, miracles.

That night at Old South, I sat on the edge of my seat. The preacher walked up very slowly. He stood there and looked out at the large gathering of people before him - all of us frozen in pin-drop silence. He placed his left hand on the pulpit, turned his head upward ever so slightly and delivered one of the most gripping sermons I have ever heard. And he did not move an inch save a few carefully placed gesticulations from his right hand to add gentle emphasis. I sat and wept at his words which were about having the courage to be who God made you to be. Amen. The second point.

Many years later I would have the chance to get to know this anointed man up close and personal as a fellow university chaplain. Each spring the chaplains of the Ivy League Universities gather for an annual meeting. I wasn't sure what to expect when I was first invited to join this number as an associate chaplain and then as a university chaplain from Penn. Part of me imagined a group of saints coming together for a holy prayer vigil with the holiest of the holy performing miracles, floating into rooms and turning water into wine. To be chaplains at these schools, I imagined, they had to be unmatched spiritual masters who had the Pope and the Dalai Lama on speed dial. The other crueler part of me imagined them holding an extended high tea, all wearing their clerics with pinkies raised in the air saying little, but thinking much about grand theological and philosophical notions. Ivy Chaplains indeed!

Turns out I was wrong on both fronts. They are people of real spiritual depth, but each is extremely approachable. They are not snobs at all, but they are each brilliant in their own right. But this Ivy collective has been for this young chaplain, something far sweeter than I ever imagined. These annual gatherings have provided a place where the warmest, more experienced chaplains like the amazing Janet Cooper-Nelson of Brown, Sharon Kugler of Yale, Jewelnel Davis of Columbia, Alison, Paul and Deborah of Princeton, Richard from Dartmouth, Ken Clarke at Cornell, and perhaps especially Peter at Harvard, can give advice, lend an ear and offer encouragement to green chaplains like myself. Stories are shared (oh the stories that Peter told!) and faith is renewed.

Well at dinner recently with Peter during one of these Ivy chaplain gatherings -- after a night of hilarious stories about his adventures as vicar to various Harvard presidents, anecdotes from his interactions with visitors to campus ranging from Mother Teresa to the Queen of England -- I mustered the courage to ask him a question.

"Peter," I said, "What advice might you have for a young rookie chaplain?"

He gave me that look that use to reveal that he was about to say something either very clever, very naughty or divinely inspired -- sometimes all three in the same breath.

He then said in that uniquely Gomesian accent, "Always walk into the room as if you are the most important person there."

We laughed.

Of course Peter Gomes would say that.

But he continued, "Always walk into the room as if you are the most important person there ... because to God you are."

The third point. And this was the key to Gomesian theology. The scandalous gospel in the good book is that to God each and every one of us is extremely important. Regardless of our race, gender, sexuality, political affiliation, education or wealth, each of us is deeply loved and cherished by God. And this radical love is indeed "scandalous" as Peter wrote. His advice, which I recall often, was not about ego or confidence, but rather about remembering how loved we are and how important we are to God.

I, like thousands of others, was deeply saddened to learn of Peter's recent passing. But I rejoice that he is now holding court in Heaven trading stories with other saints and hearing from the One whom he served for more than four decades, "Well done, good and faithful servant."

Those who had seen Peter since he suffered a stroke a few months ago said that he had hoped to return to Memorial church to preach on Easter morning. Sadly, no longer will the free, courageous and important voice of Peter Gomes be heard in Cambridge. But he never needed that beautiful baritone voice with that uniquely Gomesian accent to preach the word. His life was a sermon and nothing can silence that, not even the grave.

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