A Sacred Radiance: 2020 Billings Preaching Competition

May 4, 2020
Ben Freeman, MDiv '20
Ben Freeman, MDiv '20.

Each spring, Harvard Divinity School's Office of Ministry Studies organizes the Billings Preaching Prize Competition. This year's competition was held remotely, and the winning sermons can be viewed online as part of the final Noon Service for the spring semester held on April 29.

Below are the remarks of competition winner Ben Freeman, MDiv ’20.


The cartoonist Lynda Barry says: “There’s the drawing you are trying to make and the drawing that is actually being made – and you can’t see it until you forget what you were trying to do.” Stephen Nachmanovitch says: “To create you have to disappear.” Creative process seems to me to be fundamentally a matter of faith: a willing surrender to what is not known. In the process the mystery happens, and the work that is actually being made emerges.

In the Hebrew Bible, before becoming the leader of the Israelites, Moses is raised an Egyptian prince. Hidden from execution and cast down the river in a basket, he is drawn out of the water by Pharaoh’s daughter, who recognizes him as an Israelite baby and decides to take him in. Years later, upon witnessing an Egyptian overseer beating an Israelite slave, the adult Moses kills the Egyptian and flees to Midian, at the edge of the wilderness. He marries, tends to a flock of sheep, and carries on, “‘a stranger in a foreign land,’” at a distance from the injustice he has lived from both sides.

It’s there, at the edge of the wilderness, that G-d first appears to Moses, in the form of a bush that burns and is not consumed. In midrash, the rabbinic tradition of interpreting Biblical text by writing what the Bible leaves out, Rabbi Joshua is asked why G-d appeared in a thorn-bush, the “lowliest” of trees. And Rabbi Joshus says: “‘To teach you that there is no empty place devoid of the Shechinah [the Divine Presence], not even a lowly thorn-bush.’” A bush that burns and is not consumed: a manifestation of divine radiance in the midst of an ordinary wilderness. I hear this and I think: what a queer thing for G-d to do. Can it be any accident that this is what my theological imagination returns to again and again?

Julia Cameron says: “Our creative dreams and yearnings come from a divine source. As we move toward our dreams we move toward our divinity.” In making we can sometimes become absorbed in a universal flow: can become, as Octavia Butler says, a partner of G-d, we can disappear and let the divine speak. This is what I mean when I invite you to become the image of G-d you already are: I am inviting you to see that there is no place within you that does not radiate divine energy, no piece of you untouched by a spark of divinity. Even the part you hate to look at. Even the part you fear is unlovable. That, too, is reaching toward the Source.

Last Passover I found myself spread across a dance floor with a group of friends, committed to a weekend of relaxing into the unplanned, and unraveling through play. We were lying on the floor, coloring long strips of heavy curled paper, and I felt clumsy. I saw finesse and inspiration in the trained hands of my friends. I felt far from where they were, seemed to be a child again, in an unwelcome way: felt trapped and exposed. I was in a narrow place – a metaphorical Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for “Egypt,” which in Jewish mystical tradition is derived from the root of the word “narrow.” Narrow places are where our being is dispossessed of its innate genius – places where we are isolated, constrained, shamed into silence. My friends were so visibly energized, so in tune with the flow. They were living. Authentically. And I was sitting there feeling small and petty and ridiculous, trying to hide my fear that my bad coloring made me unlovable, feeling intensely estranged.

Eventually I had to say: “I’m not feeling part of the group.” “You’re all feeling good and I want to feel that way too.” I hated exposing myself in this way. I feared being in conflict with my friends would sap the experience of its simple joy, its magic. And yet to that point it had been neither simple nor joyful for me: that was an invention, a false self I was hiding behind. The authentic me was the me that was in pain. I call to myself in that narrow place, I say: stay there, and speak up, because that is where you learn to get free. Only in sharing the part of me I felt was impossible to love were the ones around me able to welcome me in. Only in acknowledging how false I felt was true self able to come out and play. And the thorny density of the coloring I hated became the gravitational center of a piece that spread all the way across the floor. It was emergent, and painful, and radiant. Divine presence manifested in the lowliest place, in the very midst of what I could not stand. Only by going into the narrow places do we come out being beautiful.

The scholar Andrew Harvey calls this kind of experience a “mystical unraveling” In unraveling we plunge directly into the heart of being, and the price is encountering our aloneness: for “what is revealed,” Harvey writes, “is just how hollow and conditioned almost every move [we] make is, and that’s a very painful recognition.” In unraveling we experience the “terrible radiance” of narrowness, our submission to prescribed ways of being. But there is a glimmer there, a perception that we could be otherwise. This is true self, fighting to emerge. And there, Harvey writes: “…we begin to see the primal, divine world in its pain and beauty and [begin] to respond to it with the love of the soul, which is one with the love that creates all things.” It’s only in choosing to encounter this – to see ourselves fully, and lucidly, and courageously – that we begin to move toward liberation.

When G-d calls to Moses from the burning bush, Moses responds: Hineni. Here I am. Much has been written about this particular word, the way it connotes not only a physical presence but also a spiritual readiness to be called. But Moses does not seem to be ready. He is afraid. He asks: “‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites?’” “‘What if they do not believe me and do not listen to me, but say: The LORD did not appear to you?’” He pleads with G-d: “‘Please O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant, I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.’”

Moses sounds to me like an artist begging for mercy, asking to be relieved of the vulnerability of creating. What if others do not believe you? If they say what you have conjured is not legitimate? And what if you find yourself to be unlovable, uninspired, irremediably slow of speech and tongue?

Then you are all the more ready to experience yourself stepping into creative power. My first year in graduate school, my supervisor, conscious of my insecurities bubbling to the surface, asked me to experiment with what I imagined Moses’s posture to be at the top of Sinai, seeing what I might learn by standing in the place of another leader with doubts.

There is no empty place devoid of divine presence.

Only by going into the narrow places do we come out being beautiful.

Here I am.

To leave Mitzrayim is to leave the narrowness of prescribed ways of being, to step into the open space of liberation. It is a holy task: a ritual encounter with our own resilience, we who survived, who are surviving. But the life of liberation contains its own terrors, its own fear of purposelessness, for coming to know ourselves outside of the frameworks that have been supplied for us is painful.* The poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes:

Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, [and] in the unsayable…[that] is what it means to live as an artist.

Learning to play with G-d is precisely this gestation and birthing, this flash of improbable brilliance in the unsayable dark. In disappearing, we reappear b’tselem elohim, in the image of G-d, as a bush that burns and is not consumed, a gathering of sacred radiance, and an invitation: however you find yourself, here you are.

*This insight comes from my friend and teacher, Rachel Leiken.