Making Our Words into Gifts: 2018 Billings Preaching Competition

April 16, 2018
Sally Fritsche
MDiv candidate Sally Fritsche. Photo by HDS.

Each spring, Harvard Divinity School's Office of Ministry Studies organizes the Billings Preaching Prize Competition, an annual preaching competition open to second- and third-year MDiv students. The finalists delivered their sermons at the Wednesday Noon Service on April 11, 2018.

Below are the remarks of finalist Sally Fritsche, MDiv ’18.


There is a certain way of speaking, and of writing, that you may have come across here at graduate school. Wait let me rephrase that, and maybe you’ll see what I mean. There is a linguistic epistemological praxis, a reification of ostentatious expression, that the thinking subject may encounter in this particularized milieu. Sound familiar? I wish I were exaggerating, but there are times I face my assigned readings and feel utterly overwhelmed by unrecognizable vocabulary. It provokes some combination of insecurity and frustration. One part feeling stupid for not understanding, and one part angry at those who refuse to speak plainly. Theology is the practice of faith seeking understanding, but sometimes “understanding” seems to come at the cost of being understandable. I don’t think I’m alone in this feeling, and this is what I want to talk about.

A couple summers ago, a survey went around online. Maybe you remember it. It mapped the accents and dialects of the US. It asked questions about whether you say “sir-rup” or “see-rup,” whether you say “soda” or “pop,” “firefly” or “lighting bug,” then mapped out where your linguistic patterns best fit within the country. I can’t help but feel that if someone were to map out the use of words like “hermeneutics,” or “reification,” the map would show a narrow scattering of university campuses, and not much else.

So who are we talking to? When we use this language, who are we talking to?

It’s not valueless. When we do intend to reach an academic audience, having just the right words brings us authority, clarity. We want to be as clear as possible, so we use words that were invented to discuss the specific phenomena we need to talk about. “Hermeneutics,” “intersectional,” “postmodern.” There are certain conversations that can only take place when we lean on the shorthand that academia lends us.

I think we also use these words sometimes just to prove we know them, prove we belong. Particularly those of us who have been made to feel inferior, unintelligent, un-authoritative: women, people of color, and anyone who’s too often had to prove their belonging in academia. We seek to treat our creeping Impostor Syndrome with the mastery of jargon. It does give us real strength, a voice where we might otherwise be unheard. So I’m not interested in condemning any particular type of language as wrong. I love words, and they all have their uses, even the obscure, even the pretentious ones.

I only want to speak up on behalf of what is lost when we unthinkingly adopt this way of speaking, of being.

Randall Munroe, a webcomic artist, once illustrated a blueprint of the Saturn 5 rocket, the rocket that successfully got us to the moon. This blueprint is labeled with explanations of the function of each part, and here’s the twist: the explanations use only the thousand most common words in the English language. The blueprint is titled, “the Up-Goer Five,” because neither “saturn,” nor “rocket” are on the list of common words. The image includes, for example, gas-tanks labeled “things holding that kind of air that makes your voice funny,” and an arrow pointing to the thrusters with a note, “This end should point toward the ground if you want to go to space.”

It’s an exercise meant to be a bit silly, but, to be perfectly honest, it’s also the only reason I can now tell you how helium functions in the launching of a rocket. This stitching simpler words together to form a concept rather than reaching straight for technical terms, has value. Taking the longer path toward meaning, has value.

I have adored the Up-goer Five ever since I first saw it, each component neatly labeled, simply explained. It takes something so far beyond my grasp—space travel, advanced aeronautics—and makes it accessible to me. And I know it’s meant as a joke, but it feels more like a gift. Like someone has done this for me. Someone who loved the Saturn Five so much that they took the time to share it with those who otherwise would never have been able to see what they love, or understand it.

This is what I want to do. I am driven to study the things that I love—God, faith, people—and if I ever want to speak about them, to show my loves to the world, I need to learn to speak with care and simplicity. Learn to drop the anxiety of proving my belonging, my authority, and say the words I actually mean. Words that will mean something to those who need them.

It’s sometimes hard to believe, but I came to divinity school because I didn’t want to go into academia. Coming here was, for me, a step away from my undergraduate background in sociology. A step toward religion, an attempt to find a different way, to communicate more closely with communities who most need to be heard.

The draw of religious community, of my call to ministry, rests so much on that ability to communicate. On the reach, the scope of the spiritual. That people who will never attend a colloquium, never read an academic journal, never know or care what I mean by “praxis,” will come together week after week, to do the work. To think and feel deeply about what it is that this world needs most. Will come seeking a salvation that can be applied to the lives they live. Will not hesitate to speak powerful truths in plain language.

Religious life has a way of mingling the ordinary and sacred, of using common words to say uncommon things.Our faith doesn’t need perfect terminology to be practiced, to be known, to be lived and spoken into the world. Had I become a sociologist, I might have striven to produce the next grand theory of how oppression can best be challenged. But as a minister, as a minister, I might learn to minister to people.

It doesn’t escape me that what I am saying today is part of a conversation that would be difficult to have outside of these walls. These references to words only academics have to wrestle with in the first place, terms I had to look up to make sure I knew what I was saying! This sermon is not one I will give elsewhere. But it is one I believe we need. I struggle, after three years here, to make my words simple, meaningful, a gift the way Up-Goer Five was to me. I am still tangled, caught up in ego and fear, and years of habitually leaning toward lecture. And I know I am not alone.

We can strive nonetheless to remember what brought us here. The desire for change, or community, or meaningful connection that brought you here. Every time we put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, every time we speak with the authority this degree grants us,  we can remember who we are talking to, where we hope to be heard.

We can put forth the effort to make our words into gifts, and reach out beyond the narrow confines of our imposing walls and impressive vocabularies. We are not here, at Harvard, to prove we belong here. We are here to learn to be somewhere else. This place, these classrooms, are not our destination, but a part of our paths elsewhere.

We are here to learn to be somewhere else. All I ask, of myself and others like me, is that we remember where we are going, and speak that destination into these halls.

May we go forth in community and courage, speak truth in love and simplicity, and may we use common words to say uncommon things.