Picture of me and Peter both making our best “Gomes” faces; I tried to complete the look with a fake pair of doppelganger glasses!
The Reverend Professor Peter John Gomes made a final homecoming this past Monday, to the profound sadness of all those who knew him and knew of him. Much has been said about Peter these past few days; about his impact on the Harvard community and larger religious arena. It is all true. But here is what I find far more long lasting: he was a living sermon in body, heart, and soul.
Homiletics was in his every breath, his every move. Peter’s life, just as a well-given sermon was, he would say, “all in the details.”
I had the blessing and honor of serving two years as a seminarian and the Director of the Church School at The Memorial Church of Harvard University (the “The,” capital “T”, was an addition by Peter himself). I met Peter on the stairs my first day during an event Memorial hosted, a tea and lemonade stand for those Harvard College freshman passing by during orientation.
He sat down with me and much like the caterpillar and Alice from Alice in Wonderland, our conversation went as such:
“Whoooo aaarrrre you?”
“Taylor Lewis Guthrie, MDiv class of 2010.”
“And what are you, my dear?”
“A hopeful candidate for ordination in the Presbyterian Church USA.”
“Are you decent and in order?”
“Yes, very much so.”
“Very good then. I trust you will care for our Church School well. Shall we have some tea?”
Careful pronunciation, simple yet stirring questions, immediate trust but implied expectation: these were the first details of what would be come a still mysterious, yet deeply-appreciated, understanding of my supervisor.
Let me offer an analogy I can only hope he’d find humorous: a good preacher is like a good sherry (this is a piece about Peter, after all, and a dinner with him was not complete without a glass of liquefied sugar): she must have layers but share them piecemeal; she must express flavors that catch you at the beginning and hold you to the end yet every once in a while surprise you with the unexpected.
Peter was a good preacher because he never gave it all away. Peter did everything with careful measure, as if his whole life was a sermon and therefore, constantly being written. Each move, each word, each turn of thought – nothing was without precursory pondering and if it was, he was darn good at rolling with his own punches. He caught people by surprise, made them think, made them question – just as a strong sermon should.
His life as a sermon was in his stories for sitting with Peter was like sitting with a never-ending narrative. Stories of his childhood in Plymouth, of the early years of his career, of his love of Queen Victoria, of the benefits of a good sherry, of antiques and of Saint Paul and of England. It did not matter if you found the subject dull for with Peter, nothing was ever boring, ever trite.
A good sermon should and will enliven the Word of God and all those others words the preacher decided to throw in there. Stories shall be told with passion and with observation of one’s audience, adjusting as appropriate. Peter taught me that.
His life as a sermon was in his hospitality. His bellowing voice still echoes in my ear as he stood at the front door of his Harvard home, Sparks House, greeting people for his weekly Wednesday tea. For one hour, every Wednesday during term time, Peter opened his house for anyone and everyone in the community. Tea flowed, chewy cookies stuck to our ribs, and we marveled at his immense collection of oil painting portraits of people he’d never met. He treated each guest with honor and genuine hospitality.
Never have I met a person with such an understanding of the importance of gathering, of being with people for the simple pleasures. A good sermon should be simple in that it does not leave someone outside the door. A good preacher shall draw their listeners in with a warm hand and hearth, building trust and security. Peter taught me that.
His life as a sermon was in his laughter. Peter was amusing and witty and found joy in others’ joy. I made the decision that day on the church steps that if I were going to embrace our relationship as supervisor-intern/mentor-mentee/experienced preacher-young preacher, I must, without hesitation, learn how to give it right back to him when he teased. He never meant harm, just delight.
I feel Peter found friendship in laughter, in banter, in sharing a giggle (or a deep-bellied chuckle). A good sermon shall, too, find strength in its ability to be a conversation, to be a back-and-forth, a give-and-take. Peter taught me that.
Peter was an embodied sermon, through and through. And since a sermon shall have its foundation in Scripture, I ask you to incline your ear (or your eye) to the Book of Psalms, chapter 30, verse 5: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
Good and faithful servant, fare thee well until we meet again.