Harvard's preacher: Peter J. Gomes, 1942–2011

March 8, 2011
DIVINE JOLT: Gomes practiced his unusual homiletical gifts at Harvard’s Memorial Church. COURTESY OF HARVARD DIVINITY SCHOOL

The guest preacher opened his sermon with a rather long explication
of Augustine's contrast be­tween blessings and consolations. It was
probably the first time most of the listeners at Duke Chapel had heard
of The City of God. The preacher then reflected on how he had
grown to appreciate the blessing of human sexuality. He was reminded of a
story about Queen Victoria, who on the night before her wedding
supposedly asked her mother how to handle the challenge of marital
relations. "My dear, just close your eyes, lie back, and think of
England," reported the preacher.

Even the Duke football
team—which, since it was "Football Sunday," was packed unwillingly into
the front pews—listened intently at this point.

"Young men," said
the preacher, looking down on the football players, "Enjoy the gift of
sexuality. True, it can make you miserable; but it can also bring you
great joy. Don't think that you invented this particular pleasure—surely
even you have read the Book of Genesis."

Then, raising his voice
to a virtual shout: "God has blessed us with sexual procreation, ordered
us to be 'fruitful and multiply'—surely one of the Lord's most gracious
commands."

The young jocks, indeed the whole congregation, was now sitting upright, uncertain whether to laugh, cheer or be indignant.

"Be
fruitful! Enjoy the full range of God's gifts! Do not delay until you
are decrepit and wasted. Look upon me and become wise. Imagine me in the
shower. I don't care how much you are working out and how firm your
biceps, one day you shall be as I. Obey Genesis 1:28!"

The sole postservice comment I recall came from a member of the defensive line: "What kind of accent was that anyhow?"

I
feel sorry for those who never got to hear Peter J. Gomes work a
congregation while a biblical text worked him. The theology displayed in
his writing is biblical, in a highly imaginative way—a sort of eloquent
last hurrah of New England Christian liberalism at its very best. He
was a fine teacher, a legendary dinner-table raconteur, a self-described
"secretary of state for religion" at Har­vard, an Anglophile, a
sometime organist and a perennially best-selling author. But his primary
vocation was as a preacher.

Peter's pulpit posture might be
de­scribed as one of gracious contempt for his congregation—no small
achievement for a preacher at a place like Harvard. I greatly envied
Peter's ability to be embraced by a congregation even as he ridiculed
it, using his unique brogue—a mix of New England and upper-class British
accents, with a hint of Harvard and a dash of southern gentility.

"We're
in Advent, eschatological season par excellence," Peter would start a
sermon, "and don't lie to me, you know little of eschatology; don't even
attempt to fake that you do. You're thinking, 'Eschatology—isn't that a
subspecialty of proctology?' But do not despair of your intellectual
limits; you shall know a great deal more about biblical eschatology
before I'm done with you this morning."

I have known few preachers
with more reverence for the homiletical arts and almost none who were
more grateful that God had called him to preach. He once told me that he
was ready to "robe up for the game anytime Harvard wants something said
in a way that adds weight, no matter how trivial the occasion."

When
I got Peter to speak at my alma mater, Wofford College in Spar­tanburg,
South Carolina, Peter ad­dressed a packed house in Wofford's Old Main, a
building built by slave labor with bricks made by slaves on campus.

"I
am not unmindful of the significance of this building, nor my presence
in this pulpit," he said. "As a preacher, I'm accustomed to answering to
the claims of the dead. I am acutely aware, at an occasion such as
this, we are accompanied by the dead, anonymous and remembered,
surrounding us, wanting to speak to us. Yet the voiceless dead cannot
speak without us. Thus I speak to you . . ."

Peter's skill as a
speaker made him the darling of Harvard alumni associations around the
world. Two or three stereotypes were sure to be broken in the first five
minutes of encountering this African-American Baptist, sometime
Republican, Massachusetts-born preacher of Portu­guese descent. (Peter
was incensed to discover that Harvard was counting him as both an
African-American and a His­panic: "It's Gomes, you fools! Not Gomez!").
His many crossover identities equipped Peter to be a great apologist in
dozens of unlikely settings. He always rendered his apology for the
faith without groveling or patronizing.

One of the greatest
sermons Peter preached was not on a Sunday morning from the pulpit of
Harvard's Memorial Church but on the church's front steps. Speaking to a
throng that had gathered after a gay hate crime on campus, he announced
that he was "a Christian who happens as well to be gay."

One
Sunday morning, after we had chatted in the vestry before the service at
Memorial Church, Peter pulled out his big gold pocket watch (who but
Peter carried a gold watch?), flipped it open, then closed it and said,
"The hour hath come. Let us pray for grace." My knees were buckling at
the thought of preaching in that space in my high-pitched southern
twang, but I was emboldened by Peter's "Go get 'em, friend."

One
Sunday, as Peter sat in that vestry and prepared for the morning
service, a student usher entered and stammered, "There's somebody
preaching here this morning."

Peter replied, "Of course, me."

"I mean there's somebody preaching in the pulpit. Now. Is that OK?"

"What?"
Peter thrust his head into the sanctuary. Aghast, he saw an
African-American woman in the pulpit ranting at the docile congregation,
screaming over the organ prelude. Indignantly, Peter bustled over to
her and hissed through gritted teeth, "You, come down here this instant.
Yes, you."

The intruder stared down at Peter.

"This instant!" he sneered.

Startled,
she came down the steps and informed Peter that she had been
commissioned to preach that day a word direct from the Lord.

"Look
you," said Peter, in love, "this is my pulpit. I have earned the right
to preach in this place. No one is going to deliver any word from the
Lord today except for the Reverend Doctor Peter J. Gomes. Now you go sit
down on that pew and keep your mouth shut or I will call the campus
police after I wring your head off."

Peter reported that the woman sat there throughout the service—silent, with a beatific smile upon her face.

"As
the prelude ended, I looked with scorn upon my congregation," Peter
confessed. "White, guilt-ridden liberals all, they would have sat there
all morning, doing nothing while that woman continued her drivel
unabated. They should thank God that their pastor is not some
intellectual wimp."

When I got word that Peter had died, I
recalled some of his memorable pronouncements, uttered in his inimitable
voice: "Anything worth saying in a sermon is worth taking at least 40
minutes to say it." "What that preacher said, he said quite well, though
what he said could have been as well left unsaid."

Peter's preaching was a divinely in­spired jolt—biblical, urbane and intelligent.

"I
never believed, never wanted to believe," a recent Harvard graduate
said to me, "until I heard Professor Gomes speak. His wit and
old-fashioned eloquence coaxed me into the faith I didn't desire until
he told me about it in a sermon." Any preacher could die happy with such
a eulogy.