The annual Billings Preaching Competition is a long-standing tradition at Harvard Divinity School. Every spring, second and third year Master of Divinity students have the opportunity to preach from a text, and on a topic, of their choice from the historic pulpit in Emerson Chapel. From those who enter, one is chosen to receive the Massachusetts Bible Society award for the best reading of a scripture, and four finalists are chosen to preach to the larger HDS community in Andover Chapel.
As a finalist and co-winner in this year’s Billings Preaching Competition, I had the opportunity to preach a sermon entitled, “Job’s Friends: An Addendum”. In this sermon I strove to subvert the narrative of Job’s friends as “miserable comforters” and to instead more compassionately engage the question of what our responsibilities are to each other during moments of incomprehensible suffering.
It was, by far, one of the most memorable experiences of my time at HDS. As a Master of Divinity candidate who is not on the ordination track, I don’t do much preaching. And in the hustle and bustle of academic life, I don’t always have the time to see my friends and colleagues preach. The Billings Preaching Competition gave me an opportunity to do both: to critically engage something that I care deeply about in the presence of a community that I have grown to cherish, and to bear witness to the truths of others as they did the same.
When I decided to craft a sermon to be delivered for that specific occasion, it was not invisible to me that the Billings Preaching Competition is a bit of a peculiar ritual. It places two innately opposed processes—competing and preaching—into a temporarily entangled relationship. It mixes the language of worship and achievement, fusing the act of sermon writing and delivery with terms like “finalist” and “winner” and “financial prize” and the promise of institutional and community recognition. As I prepared to step up to the pulpit on the day of the Billings finals, I did so with a complex internal landscape. I felt genuinely grateful for, and honored by, the privilege to preach. I also felt genuinely conflicted—I was wrestling with that precarious line between ego and exhibition, and the serious work of preaching.
I don’t think that internal struggle is particular to the Billings. I, and all who have the opportunity to come to HDS, am in the unique situation of attending Divinity School at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. I have access to incredible networks, resources, and support systems, and I often have to re-remember that opportunities such as the Billings ethically demand an approach that is grounded in responsibility to a larger community and larger purpose, rather than an unanchored desire to climb the ladder of success.
Indeed, when the moment came to walk up to the pulpit, turn my gaze outward, and preach, and when the moment came to witness my colleagues do the same, the reality that we were doing so in the context of a competition became irrelevant. It was still worship. It was still preaching. It was still an offering to a community of people to whom we had the distinct privilege to speak. We had the same responsibility as any person who chooses to step into a pulpit to speak with love, conviction, faith, and sincerity, and to communicate truths that were capable of living beyond that brief moment. The Billings Preaching Competition was an affirmation, and a celebration, of the seriousness with which the HDS community can, should, and does take the act of stepping into the pulpit; it was a testament to the importance of giving students the space in which to develop that seriousness; and it was, like many of my HDS experiences, a moment that compelled me to ask the larger questions of why I do what I do, and how I can become more worthy of those answers.