Friday, May 31, 2013

The bishop of Harvard - Remarks at the memorial service of the 35th reunion of the Harvard class of 1978 - J. Barry Vaughn

Peter liked to tell the story of the Harvard professor who began a conversation with him by saying, "Should I die, Dr. Gomes..." Like that professor, I suspect that Peter never quite believed that someday he would be promoted from the church on earth to the church in heaven. But that day DID come, and this is our first reunion without Peter. He shook our hands at the door of Memorial Church on Freshman Sunday and gave us his blessing when we graduated. Peter held the position of Plummer Professor of Christian Morals from 1974 until his death two years ago.

My friendship with Peter was improbable. I was a white kid from rural Alabama; he was black, a Harvard professor, and a Yankee. We WERE both Baptists, although I had never seen a Baptist like Peter. Like so many of you, I met him the first Sunday of freshman year and we were friends for the rest of his life.

We all have our favorite Gomes' anecdotes. Mine has to do with Peter's visit to my church in Alabama in 1984. It was (thank God) George Wallace's last term as governor of Alabama. I wondered how to thank Peter for coming to preach. What do you get a man who has everything? Well, in this case, it took a special act of the Alabama legislature.

At the luncheon after the service, I presented Peter with a beautifully framed and elegant document declaring him to be an "honorary lieutenant colonel aide-de-camp" in the Alabama state militia that was signed by Governor George Corley Wallace. For once Peter was almost speechless. "Well shut my mouth!" he finally said.

The public Peter Gomes was larger than life: a peerless preacher, a raconteur without equal, a shameless namedropper, always delightful company.

But I suspect that many of you, like I, value even more your acquaintance with the private Peter Gomes: the many kindnesses, the time he took to return phone calls and write letters in longhand, the fact that whenever I dropped in on him, he made the time to talk with me, and that he greeted me as "my dear boy" no matter how many years it had been since graduation.

It was the private Peter Gomes, the pastor, to whom I went on a cold, rainy spring afternoon during sophomore year when I finally realized that I was gay. 

And it was Gomes the pastor who influenced my decision to enter the ministry, not only because he did the kinds of things I wanted to do, but even more because he was the kind of man I wanted to be.

Peter was far from perfect. He loved good food and drink perhaps a little too well; he delighted in the company of the well to do and successful; and he loved to gossip. But perfection is over-rated. Peter's imperfections only made him more loveable.

Peter loved to tell the story of going to an elegant event in London. According to him, the ladies wore tiaras and the gentlemen wore medals. Peter, ever the high church Baptist, wore a clerical collar. A tiara-ed lady fell into conversation with him and asked, "My lord, what is your diocese?" Peter explained that he was the Harvard University chaplain, so she introduced him to her husband as "the bishop of Harvard."

That's about as good a description of Peter as I can think of - "the bishop of Harvard."

When he announced his retirement, Trevor Potter and I decided that we wanted to commission a piece of music for the University Choir in his honor, so we set up a conference call with him to discuss the text and talk about composers. I asked Peter if he had a composer in mind. "Well, I supposed Elgar is dead," he said. It was the last conversation I had with him.

I sincerely hope that he has made Elgar's acquaintance in the heavenly kingdom and that they are getting along famously. But I have no doubt that when it is Wednesday afternoon in heaven, the bishop of Harvard is presiding at tea and entertaining the heavenly host with his stories.

Let us pray:

Support us, O Lord, all the day long of this troublous life, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then, in thy great mercy, grant us a safe lodging, a holy rest, and peace at the last. Amen.

 Into thy hands, O merciful Lord, we commend thy servant Peter. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech thee, a sheep of thine own fold, a lamb of thine own flock, a sinner of thine own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of thy mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.