02 March 2011

The Passing of Peter Gomes: in Memoriam of the Man with the Anglican Oversoul

This week I learned of the death of the Rev. Peter Gomes, pastor of Memorial Church, Harvard University. In many ways, for me, it felt like losing Johnny Cash all over again. Although we only met twice he felt like a member of the family, a close friend, a mentor, an icon, someone who has always been around.

At the 1999 commencement address of the Colgate Rochester Divinity School Rev. Gomes was the chosen preacher. I showed up...late and...unprepared. I took my seat just as he stepped up to the elevated pulpit of the Asbury First United Methodist Church, donned in an otherworldly clerical attire, speaking with a marvelous cadence and rhythm. It was not until I arrived back at my apartment did I even read his biography. After the service he stood at the back door greeting each as we left, everyone of us, just like any Baptist pastor in any Baptist church in Appalachia.

I didn't know what to make of him. In some ways I scoffed at his clerical demeanor, his Elizabethan tongue, and seriousness which he took his profession.

It was not until I moved to Rhode Island that we he bumped into me at the Brown University Bookstore. As I rounded the corner to the religion section he greeted me with his infectious smile and charm, (it was the cover of Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living). I read three sentences and instantly decided to purchase the book.

Confession: In seminary I had a dual self-understanding of myself that severely impeded my ability to preach: one, I thought I was going to pursue PhD studies in Theology and two, I thought I was a born natural when it came to preaching and therefore did not need any help. As the last semester of divinity school approached I decided to take a preaching course for graduation, the only one offered was Advanced Feminist Preaching. It was a great class but I hadn't even took Feminist Preaching or Intro to Preaching. I made my way through the class but my skills as a preacher were lacking at best. After a year or two in the pulpit I realized I needed to undertake a crash course in preaching. I began reading, listening to tapes, and reading the Arts section of the NY Times (a Gardner Taylor recommendation). But the world seemed to be going in the opposite direction: short sermons, light ideas, and easy construction. But Gomes in his sermon preparation and life as a pastor would have none of that!

Over the past 8 years I am not afraid to say that I have read every book Rev. Gomes has written, I have tried to model my worship services after his at HMC, I even wear the cassock, preaching gown and preaching tabs as he did (his secretary confirmed that they were purchased at Wippell). Not to mimic but because I realized that this was a serious man undertaking a serious profession with humor, scholarship, and delight - and I felt the same way! And if I were to take my profession serious why not get up on Sunday morning with full intentions. No one complained about outfit (they actually said it made my preaching better) or my love of all things non-sacramental-Episcopalian but they did complain at my sermon length; to use a PG aphorism describing the expectation of most folk when it comes to the length of worship (and i.e. sermons), One Lord, One Faith, One Hour!

We next met at Andover Newton Theological School during a lecture on preaching. I was one of the first people in the building. I took notes on how he conducted himself, not only what he said but how he said it. After the engagement I waited my turn in line to introduce myself and then ask a couple of questions. He took the time to answer and to encourage.

This week we have lost a great human being, and a great preacher. The response has been tremendous. I think most feel like we have lost the last of the great preachers. But I think if Rev. Gomes was anything he was an encourager and a model for the possibility. If a preacher can preach for 45 minutes to standing room only crowds at "Godless Harvard," then certainly the rest of us can button down and do a damn good job at sermons we prepare and deliver at the congregations we serve!


Travis Stanley said...

Enjoyed your reflections. Wish I could have been blessed to have met him. Lots of his sermons for free on Harvard's iTunes U page. He's been preaching to me in my car the last few days, and I've been soaking it in, taking notes, and wishing I could throw words like he does.

Chad said...

Well done. I understand you a little better after reading this. Gomes' delivery and self-seriousness gave me pause, but you knew he was taking the profession seriously. I'm glad he's been a model for you.