"Nuggets of Wisdom and Grace": A Review of Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living by Peter Gomes


[1] Upon finishing Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living, a collection of forty sermons preached by the Reverend Professor Peter J. Gomes, to the multicultural, cosmopolitan congregation of Harvard's Memorial Church, my soul spoke to me saying, "Peter Gomes may be a twenty-first century Don Quixote, daring to 'Dream the Impossible Dream,' of the coming of the kingdom of God on earth, and to preach it at Harvard!"

[2] In 1974, Peter Gomes was the first black pastor/preacher ever called by Harvard University to become the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and the Pusey Minister to the university. His mandate is therefore to provide moral guidance in both his preaching and his teaching. The primary aim of these sermons is to guide us, through the wisdom of the Bible, in practical, daily living of the Christian life.

[3] "Eschatology is the basis of ethics," says Gomes, "for the Christian models himself not upon the discredited models of the past human experience, but rather upon things that have not yet been." (Advent III: "Humbug and the Christian Hope," p. 21)

[4] "The only place worth aspiring to, is in the future, and it is given flesh and blood and bone and purpose in the form of Jesus Christ." (Advent 1: "The Art of Impatient Living," p. 7)

[5] Gomes believes that "the essential word and wisdom of the biblical experience both survives and transcends our world." And that, "It is the preacher's task and the function of the sermon to make this clear." (Introduction, p. xvi)

[6] Earlier this year, at the invitation of the Division for Ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Gomes (an ordained American Baptist minister) delivered the Hein/Frye Memorial Lectures at several Lutheran theological seminaries in the United States. Through this lecture series, he became a familiar figure to many readers of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics, who were stimulated and charmed by the wit, wisdom and insight reflected in his hermeneutics and his homiletical facility to say the nastiest things in the nicest, most compassionate, way. He has an impressive ability to engage his listeners in the content of his text and the substance of his lecture.

[7] Gomes is an African American Baptist preacher who transcends denominationalism, culture and ethnicity by reaching out beyond his own heritage and embracing and including others. He refuses to allow "the denominational map-makers" to tell him what part of Christian history is his and which is not. Why, he asks, should he be limited to the confines of his own "truncated tradition"? (Remembrance: "The Fellowship of the Incomplete," p. 228). He claims the right, as a corporate member or "fellow" of the body of Christ, to enrichment by all denominational traditions and fellowship with all Christians. "Am I not one with all who know the same Lord I do?" he asks. "It is a community of cooperation in which the dead, the living and the yet-to-be-here share in that glory which is the presence of Christ and the perfect will of God." (Ibid., p. 229)

[8] In his insightful forward to Sermons, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., chairman of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research at Harvard and a self-described agnostic, says that "In Sermons, he [Gomes] has met head-on the challenges of opening the pages of the Bible and offering to contemporary readers a relevant and useful set of texts for their daily lives."

[9] The book is beautifully structured, containing forty sermons equally divided into two categories. Part One: Seasons, is based on the liturgical church year, Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Palm Sunday, Easter, Ascension, etc., and is likely to be of special appeal to Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, and even Russian and Eastern Orthodox congregations. Part Two: Themes, is a collection of "topical/textual" sermons for the practical, daily living of the Christian life, compatible with the style of the non-liturgical churches.

[10] Each sermon is firmly rooted in a biblical text, which Gomes relates to a topic such as Death, Perfection, Opportunity, Friendships, Identity, Negotiation, Mystery, Stewardship, etc. With insight, skill, and compelling clarity, he dissects and unfolds the meaning and the message of his texts, leading us out to see and understand with our hearts. Nor does he limit himself to what the Bible says in dealing with the topics. One of his texts is taken from the Apocrypha, "The multitude of the wise is the welfare of the World" (Wisdom 6: 24), and he illustrates his points with references to, and quotations from other Wisdom literature, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, Woody Allen, and even the Wizard of Oz.

[11] Peter Gomes has broken new ground in this beautiful collection of sermons. He has "gone where the brave dare not go," by drawing inspiration and guidance from sources generally shunned by the religiously orthodox and the intellectually conservative.

[12] He brings a spiritual and transcendent perspective to his hermeneutics that is rooted in a quest to find wisdom for daily living, and affirm durable truths. He is ruthlessly iconoclastic in his ability to strip away non-essentials and get to the heart of the matter. "I wish I could make all this disappear," he says of the trappings of Christmas, in his opening Advent sermon on "The Art of Impatient Living." (p. 3). "The world is welcome to Christmas; we Christians hardly have any claim on it at all any more." (Ibid., p. 4). In Gomes's opinion, Christmas has become "an organized effort to make us feel good, do good and spend money." (Advent III: "Humbug and the Christian Hope," p. 17) Similarly, he attempts to liberate Thanksgiving from what he calls "the 'count-your-many-blessings-name-them-one-by-one routine.'" (Thanksgiving: "Redeeming the Familiar," p. 232)

[13] Beyond the political, educational and economic gains won for African Americans by the Civil Rights movement, Dr. Gomes questions whether full freedom has been achieved. "What, though, is freedom when we are simply enabled to pursue with everybody equally free the already discredited and ephemeral playthings of our time? Is it true freedom for blacks now to be able to indulge at will all of the anxieties and inanities of whites?" He asks and urges us all to seek the "freedom not of action but of being, the freedom to fulfill our destiny as an essential, holy, complete part of God's creation." (Advent III: "Humbug and Christian Hope," p. 21)

[14] He acknowledges and confronts difficult questions: "One of the reasons for the Bible and the Christian faith's lack of credibility to most of us, one of the reasons they are both unbelievable and uncompelling, is that they ask us to do things that are manifestly undoable. They ask us to believe things that, if not believable or true, are at least unlikely." ("The Are of Impatient Living," p. 4) Yet, he is able to refute the skeptic and reassure the faith of the doubtful. With wit and humor he gently prods us to challenge our assumptions and overcome our unconscious prejudices: "Part of our problem with Mary, I suspect, is that we know her to be a woman, and we suspect her to be a Catholic." (Advent II: "Hail Mary, Full of Grace," p. 10)

[15] A master of irony, he makes fun of our vain attempts to make sense out of religion. "Instruction is what we are about, and we would be tutored in matters of religion as in a foreign language until that blissful day when we will know precisely what the Virgin was not, exactly what happened on Easter day, and what was the ultimate plan behind the plan of creation. Once we have discovered these things, then we will be prepared to be completely religious. We will then be able to explain to our skeptical friends and our skeptic selves just what it is that we do and do not believe, and why or why not." (Mystery: "The Mystery of Our Religion," 210) "We sit, well-armed, in our well-lit churches, ready to swat into oblivion any hint of transcendent mystery that might have managed to survive the eighteenth century." (pp. 219-220)

[16] Dr. Gomes is uncompromising in his affirmation of the essential mysteries of the Christian faith. "At its heart," he states, "the religion that we profess is neither reasonable nor relevant, and every effort to make it so has proved disastrous." (p. 224) "We are, as Paul reminds us in I Corinthians, 'servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.' We confront a mystery that confounds the world and our own ability to understand and contain it. We might wish to be 'colleagues of Jesus and masters of the knowledge of God,' but we are not." (p. 224) "We can do nothing less than affirm, and indeed confess, how great is the mystery of our religion." (p. 218)

[17] "Preaching," he tells us, "is the making of small points large so that small people like ourselves can understand them." (Palm Sunday: "Beyond Tragedy," p. 69) This collection of sermons was first published in 1998, between the first and second volumes of Gomes's monumental trilogy on the Bible and living the Christian life. In the trilogy, he is freed from the limitations of time and structure imposed by the sermon format, and is able to explore and develop more fully and deeply the themes touched on in Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living.

[18] The first book in the series, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart, was published in 1996, and remained for many weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list. In it, he comes to grips with the positions expressed in the Bible on many ethical issues, such as race, women, and homosexuality. He demonstrates how biblical passages have often been misinterpreted and misused in order to justify anti-semitism, racial segregation and more. While he received considerable praise for this book, he was severely criticized for his scriptural interpretations on some of these issues by a number of "evangelical zealots and born-again literalists." (Sermons, p. ix)

[19] The second book of the series, The Good Life: Truths that Last in Time of Need, published this year (2002) by Harper Collins, is startlingly up-to-date, touching on subjects such as the Enron scandal and the fall of the Twin Towers.

[20] Dr. Gomes is not afraid to "fight the unbeatable foe" in contending vigorously against "the false values and wisdom of the world, the flesh and the devil," in relation to failure, success, discipline and freedom. He teaches us that our daily determination must be to "bear the unbearable sorrow" we may encounter in this life with the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude, and the "trinity of Christian graces," faith, hope and love. He believes that "this generation of young people has been cut off from its own moral tradition, deprived of a tradition of virtue, leaving it both stranded and dissatisfied in a cultural environment that has neither limits, nor end, nor center."

[21] He argues that, in order to live truly by faith, we must recover the moral knowledge that will guide us to make the right choices in order to live the "good life" virtuously and well in this world. He quotes Harry Emerson Fosdick, "It is cynicism and fear that freezes life; it is faith that thaws it out, releases it and sets it free." (The Good Life, p. 233)

[22] "Hope," Gomes writes, "hallows the future and moves us from here to there." And he quotes G. K. Chesterton, "As long as matters are really hopeful, hope is a mere flattery or platitude; it is only when everything is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength at all. Like all the Christian virtues, it is as unreasonable as it is indispensable." (The Good Life, p. 268)

[23] In his section in The Good Life on "Love: Being and Doing," Gomes quotes Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen: "God does not love us because we are valuable. We are valuable because God loves us." This is a tremendous affirmation of human worth. The Imago Dei (image of God) is inherent in all males and females created by the Ground of Being.

[24] Perfect love casts out fear, and Gomes teaches us that, especially in the face of the politics of fear that has prevailed since the fall of the Twin Towers of Babel. We must recover the moral knowledge and biblical virtues of faith, hope and love that will enable us to live the truly Good Life. The New York Times heralded The Good Life as "a clarion call to embrace the deeper truths that will guide us in an uncertain world."

[25] The third book in Gomes's "trilogy of the good," is planned for publication in 2003 and will be entitled, The Good News: From Bible to Gospel.

[26] In his words and his works, the Reverend Professor Peter J. Gomes guides and inspires his congregation, his students and his readers to rise above the particular and "reach the unreachable star," which is the perfect will of God in the world, but not of it.



© October 2002
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 2, Issue 10