by The Reverend Craig Lemming, Associate Rector
Sunday, December 3, 2023 – Advent I / Year B

In the name of Jesus Christ who comes to visit us in great humility. Amen.

The “Little Apocalypse” in St. Mark’s Gospel gives me anxiety. The angst and anticipation of it all; the magnificence of sun, moon, stars, and angels witnessing Christ’s arrival in the clouds; and the urgency of its warnings: “beware!” “keep alert!” and “keep awake!” All of this tempts us to think that we’re required to be in a panicked state, and on high alert. I think there’s another way to interpret and to integrate today’s Gospel in our lives as we begin this Holy Season of Advent. Howard Thurman will be our spiritual guide. Two short excerpts from one of Thurman’s “Meditations for Apostles of Sensitiveness”[1] will open and conclude my homily. And for those who are not into being all spiritually woo-woo and contemplative, fear not! There’s an outrageous story about humility being key to the surprise of God’s love; the science behind blushing; and some theology for my fellow church nerds. As we embark on this inward journey, may we learn again the sacred lesson of the fig tree: as soon as its branch becomes tender, we know that God is near. May we be open to experiencing the fierce tenderness of God’s Love Incarnate. So, center yourself. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. And listen to Howard Thurman’s words:

Give me the listening ear
The eye that is willing to see

Give me the listening ear. I seek this day the ear that will not shrink from the word that corrects and admonishes—the word that holds up before me the image of myself that causes me to pause and reconsider—the word that challenges me to deeper consecration and higher resolve—the word that lays bare needs that make my own days uneasy, that seizes upon every good decent impulse of my nature, channeling it into paths of healing in the lives of others. Amen.

Picture it: a cold Sunday afternoon in Boston in February 2002. I returned from singing my church gigs at King’s Chapel, loaded my dirty laundry into a washing machine in the dorm of New England Conservatory, and as it was pre-soaking realized I was completely out of laundry detergent. I only had about 7-days’ worth of clothing in those days, so all I had on were my pajama pants and an old sweater. None of my friends were around, so I decided to put on my brother’s hand-me-down Timberland boots, hat, scarf, coat, and gloves that he’d mailed to me for the winter, and trudge through the snow to the CVS about two blocks away from the dorm. I was delighted that those gigantic containers of laundry detergent were on sale and so were the extra-large bags of gummi bears at the check-out. As I made my way back to the Conservatory, rounding the corner at Boston Symphony Hall, a beautifully dressed woman in a mink coat asked if I was a music student. When I told her I was a student at NEC, she said, “here’s a ticket to the concert. I can’t go. Family emergency. Enjoy the performance! It starts in 10 minutes.” She got into her limousine that purred away. I was astounded when I looked at the ticket. The great Māori soprano from New Zealand, one of my idols, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa was about to begin singing a recital in Boston Symphony Hall. I now had a ticket. I was also in my pajama pants. But I walked in anyway, praying that I would be seated somewhere inconspicuous. An usher pointed me to my seat in the center orchestra section about seven rows in front of the stage. I made half a row of extremely well-dressed members of Boston’s high society stand up as I shuffled past them in my Timberland boots and pajama pants holding my gigantic container of laundry detergent and extra-large bag of gummi bears. The people on either side of me were revolted with me as I slid my laundry detergent under my seat along with my hat, coat, scarf, gloves, and bag of gummi bears. Out came Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, who looked stunningly beautiful, her voice as fresh, clear, and angelic as ever. At intermission, the older woman on my right, who was also alone, noticed how moved I was by the performance. She shared with me how much her late husband loved Dame Kiri ever since Kiri sang at the Royal Wedding in 1981 when then Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana were married. She listened to Dame Kiri’s singing to sooth her broken heart as she grieved her late husband’s passing. I shared with her that I play my recording of Mozart’s Cosí fan tutte when I’m homesick. Dame Kiri’s voice takes me back to my warm and sunny adolescent days in Zimbabwe. We smiled at each other and blushed. Then Dame Kiri came out in a new costume for the second half, and later ended her recital with three encores and a standing ovation. The kind woman urged me to go and meet Dame Kiri, to tell her how much her singing meant to me, and to ask her to sign my concert program. She saw how embarrassed I was about my appearance. She held my arm and said, “Never miss an opportunity to thank the people who mean the most to you. It might be your last chance.” So, I stood in line, in my Timberland boots and pajama pants holding my gigantic container of laundry detergent and extra-large bag of gummi bears. Dame Kiri looked me up and down, smiled, shook my hand, and said, “you must be a music student.” I was so nervous, I couldn’t form sentences, and I don’t remember what I said to Dame Kiri. But I do remember that when I apologized for my unacceptable appearance, she very kindly said she was glad I turned up anyway, because I reminded her of her own humble beginnings. Dame Kiri gave me a hug and signed my concert program, which I’ve treasured ever since.

What does any of this have to do with Advent? In the Collect for the First Sunday in Advent, we pray the words, Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility. When we have the courage to be fully seen, in all of our unacceptable, humble humanity, the love of Christ manifests. And for those who need science to back this up, Professor of Psychology Dacher Keltner observes that when forces beyond all human agency humble others, we suddenly recognize our shared humanity, and we experience awe.[2] In his book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, Dacher Keltner writes,

Darwin reasoned that the blush is a manifestation of our moral beauty, signaling that we care about the opinions of others; studies 130 years later would find that others’ blushes trigger forgiveness and reconciliation in observers – a millisecond pattern of behavior joining perpetrator and victim in a transformative dynamic at the heart of restorative justice.[3]

We need to let the tenderness of our humility be seen, heard, and known. This is how we can gently disrupt monolithic spaces of exclusivity: by simply showing up with humility, in all of our human differences, especially in spaces society tells us we don’t belong. I clearly did not belong in that row of the well-dressed elite of Boston’s high society. But turning up humbly in all of my human difference gently disrupted the status quo. That moment of tender, decolonial dissonance invited an older, white, grieving widow, and a younger, Black, homesick immigrant, to see one another’s humanity, smile, and blush in a shared millisecond of great humility. This is how Kinship Across Lines of Difference begins. This is an Advent faith. A trust in the power of God’s love to visit us in great humility. Theologian Willie James Jennings describes this as “a faith that understands its own deep wisdom and power of joining, mixing, merging, and being changed by multiple ways of life to witness a God who surprises us by love of differences and draws us to new capacities to imagine their reconciliation.”[4] Paul Tillich taught that faith in Christ is when we accept the fact that by God’s Grace we are fully accepted, despite the fact that we are unacceptable.[5] This Advent, may we be open to having our lives gently disrupted by unexpected otherness. May we be humbled by sudden encounters of God’s love when our shared humanity is fully seen and we blush. May our innermost sanctuaries be prepared to receive God’s Love Incarnate born in Christ’s great humility. May these “little apocalypses” – these little revelations – make our hearts as tender as the fig tree’s branch when it puts forth its leaves and new life approaches. I leave you with the words of Howard Thurman. Center yourself. Take another deep breath. Close your eyes. And pray with me:

Give me this day—the eye that is willing to see the meaning of the ordinary, the familiar, the commonplace—the eye that is willing to see my own faults for what they are—the eye that is willing to see the likable qualities in those I may not like—the mistake in what I thought was correct—the strength in what I had labeled as weakness. Give me the eye that is willing to see that God has not left [Godself] without a witness in every living thing. Thus to walk with reverence and sensitiveness through all the days of my life.

Give me the listening ear
The eye that is willing to see


[1] Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1953), 208-209.

[2] Dacher Keltner, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life (New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2023), 36.

[3] Ibid., 89.

[4] Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 9.

[5] Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948), 161-162.

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