Monday, March 07, 2011

Rev. Peter Gomes, 1942 - 2011

Peter Gomes, the longtime pastor of Harvard's Memorial Church, died last week. I heard Rev. Gomes preach precisely once, in June, 1993. But that one occasion was enough for me to list him on my personal pantheon of the Best Public Speakers I've Ever Heard.*

The day I heard him preach was the day of my college graduation. It was the morning benediction, and optional first part of a long graduation ceremony. I got into the spirit of the day, putting aside my Jewish impulse not to go to church, and went. I was glad I did: it was a fabulous sermon, and I kinda wished that I'd gone to church as an undergraduate (I'd gone to synagogue, but for some reason Gomes hadn't preached there...).

As I recall, the text was a lengthy passage from the gospel of Matthew -- Matthew 6, I believe, towards the end, including "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." Gomes began by quoting a long bit of it, and then thundered (if one can thunder with such an accent, one that sounds so stunningly elite that it was hard to feel worthy to sit there):
THAT was the Word of GOD; THIS is the Word of GOMES, hardly less important to you at this juncture in your careers.

The theme of the sermon was not to regret what we'd done, or not done, in college: that that was behind us, and "each day has enough trouble of its own". And as one who'd spent considerable time that spring regretting what I'd done and not done in college, and being fearful for the future, it worked wonders upon me, freeing me -- partly, for a time -- from the tight coil of regrets I had wound myself into. God's command not to worry I did not head; but Gomes's advice on this matter helped a great deal. Words well spoken have a genuine magic about them -- are, perhaps, the only things that truly do. And Gomes's words that day were magic for me. For which I will be forever grateful.

Rest in peace, Reverend Gomes.

* Three others include David Brin, Charles Merrill and my father. (But each of them I've heard speak at least twice.)


Michael A. Burstein said...

Reverend Gomes gave the talk to the graduates in Memorial Church the morning of my graduation as well, and I still remember it to this day. I had the chance to tell him how much I appreciated his sermon - "Think Small" - and the inclusivity of his words. He was a delightful man, and with his passing the world is a sadder place.

Stephen said...

"I had the chance to tell him how much I appreciated his sermon... and the inclusivity of his words."

I wish I'd had the foresight and classiness to do that. Didn't think of it.

Interesting that that sermon was as good as the one two years later. I guess his batting average was pretty high.