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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Prophetic Voices of the Church

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

For the sixth annual installment of our “Prophetic Voices of the Church” lecture series, we invited Rev. Peter J. Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in The Memorial Church at Harvard University, where he has served for more than thirty years. Gomes is widely regarded as one of America's most distinguished preachers, and his lecture on March 15 certainly sustained that reputation.

Gomes began his talk by disclaiming the mantle of the prophet in favor of that of a preacher. Though preachers and prophets are not far removed from one another—both are “called to say things to people who would rather not hear them”—prophets are a hallowed group. With characteristic wit and eloquence, Gomes described why prophets ancient (including Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jesus) and modern (Martin Luther King, Jr., William Sloane Coffin, Dorothy Day) are so imposing to us: they seem to tower above us in righteousness and courage. We are, Gomes said, so “overwhelmed by this prophetic inheritance” that we think we cannot possibly participate in it. The danger of prophecy is that we may think it is an elite profession.

Yet prophecy has at its heart the act of teaching, Gomes reminded the audience, and teaching is something we can all do. In the great popular movements for justice in American history—antislavery, women’s rights, civil rights—we see “ordinary people who by their example are leading their country from one place to another.” Prophets grand and humble alike call us back to the old in order to push us ahead toward the new. 

This movement toward the new carries many risks. Gomes recounted his own attempts to teach those who would listen that the move toward war in Iraq was misguided, that our government should sanction gay marriage, and that Christians should resist conformity to the prevailing culture. Despite the opprobrium sometimes heaped upon those who teach hard truths, Gomes argued, preachers should not be frightened away from this calling.  Fear of offending others too often leads to “homiletical laryngitis” or a “muted voice from the pulpit,” but preachers can avoid this fate if they trust in the Word (that gives them something to say), trust in the Spirit (that is alive and well in the church if you are open to it), and trust themselves enough to teach, provoke, encourage and embrace their parishioners. This democratic form of prophecy is part of, not opposed to, pastoral care. It does not require sackcloth and ashes, but rather a willingness to teach and learn, and to commit oneself to God.

After a rousing applause, Gomes took questions on a wide range of topics. For those unable to attend the lecture, streaming video of the talk will be available soon at