The world and the church have suffered a great loss today. Peter J. Gomes, Minister of the Memorial Church at Harvard University and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard Divinity School died last night. He was a truly unique individual and, in my estimation, one of the greatest prophetic voices of this generation.
Anyone who has known Professor Gomes is aware that calling him “a character” would have been an intolerable understatement. He was larger than life. His diminutive size was more than made up for by a big personality, a brilliant mind, a biting wit and a booming voice that was somehow a graceful symphony of southern drawl, British English and one of the Muppets. He was a world renowned teacher and writer, and was often acknowledged as one of the best preachers of our time. He was a tireless voice of reason for stemming the tide of religious fundamentalism and biblical literalism that threatened to undermine the true Christian gospel. As an out gay man, he was a constant advocate against bigotry and oppression. But most importantly, he was also my preaching professor.
Professor Gomes' preaching class was notorious for being both exclusive and intimidating. Only eight students a year were offered the opportunity to subject themselves to the formative guidance of Gomes' unique method of instruction, a process which involved preaching a number of sermons extemporaneously (without notes) and then allowing them to be heavily critiqued by one's classmates and professor. This was not the class one would apply to be in if one were concerned with building up one's self esteem in a direct way. But year after year, students showed up in droves for the unique privilege of trying out.
Naïve as I was, I tried out the first term of my first year in seminary (thinking if I was rejected, I'd still have a few more shots!). However, by some strange quirk of the selection process, I became one of those guinea pigs. I joined 7 of my colleagues on this journey: the eloquent and philosophical son of Puerto Rican Baptist preacher, a Jesuit priest, two candidates for ministry in the United Church of Christ, one of whom also happened to be a devout practitioner of Zen Buddhism, a African American Baptist, one methodist, another Presbyterian and me. Over the course of our term, we met each week for three hours in the basement conference room of the church, taking turns presenting our exegesis of the passages we had been assigned and, eventually and with much trepidation, offering our sermons on them from the hugely elevated pulpit in the chapel upstairs (about which Gomes loved to declare allowed one to be “15 feet above contradiction.”).
The stakes of each of these meetings were high (the adrenaline of the extemporaneous exercise, as it turns out, can make it very difficult to recall the exact details of one's carefully crafted sermon!) and the criticism was real. Critiques offered by Professor Gomes were rarely effusive but instead direct and critical almost always offered with great, maniacal joy on his part. In the course of our term, he likened various students' sermons to cars flying off cliffs and exploding, a peacock that couldn't fly, and (one which sent him into fits of hysterical laughter) a Star Wars ship jetting through a meteor belt with no idea what it would hit next. At various points, he told students he disliked their voice (mine!), that their illustrations bored him to tears and that they were fundamentally just not that interesting. He didn't feel badly about this, he told us, because, in his words, “this is the last time in your life someone will offer you honest feedback on your sermons.” He thought it would help us. And in a strange way, it did.
I don't know that I would say Professor Gomes taught me how to preach exactly (I rarely use the extemporaneous method he used, though it is nice to know I could in a pinch!), but he was most certainly a teacher to me. Though he wouldn't have even known who I was after that term ended (and there was some question as to whether or not he knew me during it, as he periodically called me Jennifer.), he had a profound effect on my theological education and my vocation as a pastor. Because what I took away from that class was a respect for the office of preaching that I will carry with me forever. In his criticisms, suggestions, jibes and jokes, what I believe he taught me was how the job of preaching was to be taken seriously. If he thought our sermon was a theological “salad” (as opposed to the theological “meat and potatoes” he was expecting), there was always an underlying sense that he was saying so because he wanted us to know that as preachers more was expected of us. This was the WORD, and it was to be treated with dignity, especially by us as its stewards.
It was a grueling 15 weeks, but we all made it through, most of us better for it, I believe. We celebrated the end of our term as guests at a four course dinner at Gomes' home. It was, to this day, the most pretentious experience I've ever had, and I mean that in a good way. No expense was spared as we sipped sherry, enjoyed terraines, drank too much good wine, and toasted (and roasted) each other and our Professor.
Some might have looked in on this as a demonstration of arrogance. But I don't see it (or him) that way.
What was so special about Gomes was that he brought to his offices of teaching and preaching the pomp and circumstance which he believed it necessitated.. He taught us, in a very small way, to do the same by honoring us with his instruction and his hospitality.
One of the last times I heard Professor Gomes' preach was on the radio as I was on the way home from my own church where I was by that time a pastor. It was the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his ordination. His sermon was about his gratitude for God's grace in the face of all the ways he had failed to live up to the vows he took at his ordination. Even he world famous advocate and preacher of the gospel, carried a humility about God's grace to the end. He did it with integrity and incredible theological depth to the end. Hearing his voice on the radio that day made me cry. As did the news today of his passing.
So, here's to you, Professor. I know you are now at peace with the One whose Word you taught us to proclaim. God bless you for all that you were and all you leave behind.
Here is a somewhat awkward photo of our class at the dinner described above. It certainly doesn't do justice to Professor Gomes or the event, but it is a good memory for me, so I thought I'd share: