Sermon for December 8, 2002
Advent 2(Isaiah 40:1-11, 2 Peter 3:8-15a and Mark 1:1-8) The Witch's House on the Corner
When I was very young, but old enough to use my imagination
in play with friends, my family lived on a dead end street on a hill that overlooked
the Mississippi River. It was a small street in a small town, in a simpler time.
There are many things I remember about the two or three blocks that composed
the neighborhood. But primarily the neighborhood was important to us children
in those years because it provided the scenery and the stage for our imaginary
Quite a few of us would gather when we were free from families and schools to play a variety of imaginary games. Sometimes we would all be dinosaurs: some of us plant eaters, some meat eaters. The neighborhood would be magically transformed into an ancient prehistoric swamp in which the meat eaters would chase the plant eaters, trying to catch them. Anything concrete was considered water. Water was safe for the plant eaters. Occasionally we would all need to refer to a big book of dinosaur pictures to get fresh ideas for the imagination. At times we would need to meet simply to organize the imaginary play into something more social or to arbitrate disputes. Other times our neighborhood would be transformed into outer space. Sometimes we lived on the American frontier in the 1800's. And so the summers of early childhood past by.
However, on the corner, there was a house that never really became part of the imaginary world that was our childhood playground. It was a smaller house. Weather beaten exterior. The shades were always closed. If we used our imagination, it almost seemed like one of those haunted houses that we read about in our picture books. (Television had not yet come into our world.) Yes, we decided, the house must be haunted.
Haunted, yes. But we knew it was not deserted, and that one person lived there. It was the house of an old woman. She was hardly ever outside. She seemed to come outside perhaps once a week with a basket of laundry that she hung on a clothes line to dry. All the clothes in the basket seemed gray or white or black. Her hair was gray. She was stooped over as she walked. Even on hot days she wore many clothes. She never seemed to talk with us. It was like she was in her own world.
One day, in our childhood imagination, just while we were deciding who was going to be the tyrannosaurus that afternoon, it came to us. The house was haunted. And the old woman was a witch. That's it, we thought. And then we were sure of it. Here was a witch, right in our midst, living a witch's life, looking every bit like the witches we had seen in books, living in the dilapidated house in the corner. And with the childhood certainty that is capable of keeping all of the food touching other kinds of food on one's plate, the witchiness of the woman became more and more of a fixture in our understanding of our neighborhood and world.
After Halloween, the outdoor imaginary play season came to a close with the colder weather. We would play inside and sometimes outside, but it was not the same. December came. And with it the lighter snow. Our imaginations turned to Christmas and what might be coming our way. Decorations appeared. Parents were busy. Relatives began to show up. It was that time of the year. Life was predictable and good.
But then something different happened one afternoon at Timmy's house. From the dining room window at Timmy's house, you could see the witch's home on the corner. Several of us noticed the old woman outside in front of her house. She was putting out some Christmas decorations. It seemed strange to see her with no laundry basket. The decorations seemed odd in front of a haunted house. But there they were. A star. A few lights on a string. And strangest of all: Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus lying in a manger. We thought it was a strange thing for a witch to do, you know, put the Baby Jesus in front of her house.
Then later, during that winter, I remember one day seeing the pastor's blue car at the witch's house. He parked right there in front of the spot where the Baby Jesus had been. After awhile he came out and drove away. Why would the pastor be going to see the witch, I wondered?
In a few more months, as I grew a bit more inside, and with some more information from the adults around me, I began to put things together in a different way. It turned out that the woman on the corner was a member of the same church I went to. I was young. She was old. Our paths never crossed there. Her illnesses kept her away from church. Pastors brought communion to people at home. But she and I both loved Christmas, and the stars, and the lights, and Mary and Joseph, and the Baby Jesus. I never really remembered her name, but I had somehow come to like her. When she died, I was very sad. But I was still not yet old enough to understand what grief was. So the sadness felt strange.
Today's story reminds us of John the Baptist, and all those strangers
in our world whose different ways may help us grow to be greater than we currently
are. Today's story is about eating locusts, and wearing animal skins and big
wide belts, and living in deserted places. John was strange.
His difference was compelling. His message called for people to look inside themselves, at the matters of the heart, and to offer one's spirit to God. He called it repentance. The sign of that repentance was becoming clean again after leading a dirty life. The ritual cleansing he used was baptism, something that is with us in the Christian tradition to this day. And this strange one pointed to what was to come: a messenger from God who would bring the cleansing and renewal of the world.
All of us, all of creation, long and yearn for renewal and refreshment as we go about our weary lives. "You, beneath life's crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow, look now for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing; Oh rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing."
The strange one called people to repent, to listen once more for the singing angels, to be renewed in faith, to be clean again, and to remember that one was coming soon. He would bring salvation. The strange one pointed to the coming of the Baby Jesus.
And so might we. Every one of us, old and young, is, in our own way, at least a little strange. That is not the issue. The issue is whether or not we will place Mary and Joseph, and the Baby Jesus in such a place that people around us will notice that something about us is different. It is time, this Advent, to place the manger right there in the front yard of our being. For all to see. It is time for all of us to renew our faith in the coming of the Lord, to cleanse ourselves, to repent and rebuild, to walk a straight path, to proclaim good news, and to participate in the renewal of the universe. Every one of us is strange. And every one of us can point to the one who is coming soon.