Sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, November 18, 2001, Thanksgiving Sunday, Pentecost 24, dedicated to the 14 adult new members plus their two spouses and five children joining the church today and always to the glory of God!
II Thess. 3:6-13 and Luke 21:5-19
I would like to change my sermon title and topic today. Instead of "Endurance Brings Life," a reflection on Luke 21:5-19, my title will be "Harry Potter's Power Within." Now this may seem quite odd to some of you. But, I am convinced, having seen "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" that three things are true for us today as I delve into the phenomena around the four Harry Potter books written by J.K. Rowling and the film released this weekend: First, Christians who argue that these books inspire and encourage children to mess with the "black arts," "Magic" and "evil" is absolutely wrong. Secondly, and much more significantly, I believe Harry Potter has much to offer us as people of faith - and certainly as those who reflect on morality, virtue and spiritual matters. Finally, in the tradition of the late, great Dr.Washington Gladden who preached on a vast array of topics and books beyond the Bible, I offer you these reflections on Harry Potter and the power within because we need to be opened to and reflect upon texts and topics which impact our church and society - and this is the case with Harry Potter.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
For years now Harry Potter has lived in the hearts and minds of my family - and I am sure many of those family members of this congregation. Let's be honest, if I asked for a show of hands, most of you with children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces, and extended family would have to acknowledge that the four volume work of J.K. Rowling have been read by a great number of your family members and friends.
Since the arrival of J.K. Rowling's first novel, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (also the title of the movie), I have listened to stories of Harry Potter. In this world which my wife and children (and many millions of others) live, I know all too well, I feel like some feel like a Potter-illiterate. I also know that in a comparable way many of you must feel the same way when you are dealing with the world of the Bible - biblically - illiterate. For example, I know that many children feel more comfortable talking about Hogwart's School than they do talking about life on the Sea of Galilee in Jesus' time.
So, please allow me to share with you a mini-crash course on the world of Harry Potter. For those of us who don't know the Harry Potter plot, let me begin by identifying our kind. We are Muggles. Muggles are non-wizards who occupy the earth along with the wizards and witches. Harry Potter is born a wizard. While just a tiny baby, Harry's parents are killed trying to save him from the evil wizard Voldemort (a force so evil he is referred to as "the one who shouldn't be named" for fear of unleashing further evil). The orphaned baby is delivered to the doorstep of his aunt and uncle who are Muggles. Harry's Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon raise him for his first 11 years without sharing any information about his background and lineage. They are cruel and abusive and make Harry sleep in a closet under the steps and serve them like a Cinderella-type slave.
Harry has no real clue that he is a wizard or that he has magic powers. But, one day on a trip to the zoo with his step-family, Harry discovers he can talk to snakes and through the power within him, he can play tricks and perform magic. Soon thereafter, he begins to receive mail from Hogwart's School which his uncle and aunt keep from him. The letters which are addressed to "Harry Potter who lives under the stairs at 17 Private Drive" are all invitations for Harry to come to Hogwart's School as a student. Even though his cruel aunt and uncle attempt to keep these words from him, it is only a matter of time before his world and his people of magic reach him - for you see, Harry is very special to them and they will not be deterred. His power to defeat Voldemort has made him a celebrity. He is known by all wizards and witches as the one with the lightening bolt scar on his forehead - a scar left from the battle with evil! We find out as the story unfolds that although Harry was scarred in the battle, Voldemort was weakened to the point where he is barely clinging to life all these years later.
On his 11th birthday, Harry is visited by a kindly, half giant wild man named Hagrid who carries him away to London where he mysteriously enters the strange and beautiful world of witches and wizards, procures all the supplies he needs - including a wand, a broom for flying, and a snowy white owl. Then traveling through a mysterious wall on railroad track 9 3/4, Harry boards a train and carries him and dozens of other children to the Hogwart's School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. On the train Harry connects with two young people who become his friends and cohorts - Ron and Hermione.
Upon arrival in the dead of night, all the children cross a magical lake, land on the island of Hogwart's and join with hundreds of other children in the castle gathering room where a hat sorts them into their various "houses." At Hogwart's, Harry, Ron, and Hermione have great adventures which include battles with a giant troll, run-ins with a huge and vicious three-headed dog named "Fluffy" which guards the Sorcerers Stone, travels through the Forbidden Forest, a battle in the dungeon, and Harry as the unsuspecting star of a game called Quidditch. Quidditch is a wild game played on flying broom sticks and Harry is called "the Seeker." His position is to a free flying one who is charged to catch a tiny, fast-flying ball that reminds you of a hummingbird in terms of speed and size.
Hogwart's School is designed around the British method of "houses" in which each student belongs to one of four groups within the school, which compete against each other on a point system. Hogwart's Headmaster is Professor Albus Dumbledore. He is the major opponent of Voldemort and is the master of white magic. The other professors are witches, wizards and goblins, in whose classrooms the subjects very much relate to traditional concerns in such a world as theirs - for example - potions, spells, and broom riding. This is the realm created by J.K. Rowling. In a glance - this is the setting of the world of Harry Potter. In this world, the mind is challenged, the imagination is delighted, faith is tested, virtues grow, and bullies seek to reign in the face of quiet opposition from a small, unsuspecting hero named Harry Potter.
In recent years, conservative Christian groups have raised questions about Harry Potter. Their clamor has reached its high point with the release of the movie. Claiming Rowling's books are meant to entice children into a world of witchcraft and black magic, people calling themselves "faithful Christians" - project themselves as experts. My guess is that they haven't read Harry Potter. Don't get me wrong - if you have read the Potter series and don't like it for various reasons founded on personal preference, that's fine. But, I believe (misusing the name of Christ once again) these particular opponents have missed the author's point all together. The world of Harry Potter doesn't threaten one's spiritual grounding in God. Rather, these books and the movie describe a vivid and lively fantasy world in which good battles evil; and virtues, morality, and the power of triumphing over ruthless enemies and bullies is seriously tested and emerges victorious in the person of young, unknowing hero.
In fact, while watching the film Friday night, I saw themes which mirror the Christian life - to suffer for and even lay down one's life for a friend, finding hope and joy in the face of abuse and despair, the virtues of community over ruthless egotism; standing up for what is right and just especially when faced with the consequences of losing (in worldly terms), and finally good triumphing over evil through the power of love. If these are not values and virtues taught and lived in by our Savior, I have been misreading the gospels all this time!
In the July 18-25, 2001 issue of The Christian Century, Catherine M. Wallace reflects on Harry Potter. She writes:
. . .at Hogwart's, as in the real world, children powerfully mirror the adults who are their role models. Older children and young adolescents - roughly those age 8-15 - are awash in the discovery of their own critical judgement and spectacularly eager to put it to use. J.K. Rowling taps into that eagerness and sets her readers loose on questions that are as good as questions get: Who or what is evil? Who or what is good? How can we be sure we have decided correctly? Whom should we trust? Like Harry, every adolescent - and every adult - faces defining choices in responding to good and evil, choices that count for much more than SAT scores, grade-point average or adjusted gross income. . . . Rowling's moral vision of our common humanity, like her narrative style, is in some distinctive ways, premodern: she has an honest, confident optimism that human beings are equipped to recognize, to desire and to choose the good. (The Christian Century, July 18-25, 2001, Vol. 118, # 21, p. 20.)
In one scene near the end of the movie, Professor Dumbledore comes to visit Harry Potter who has just defeated an evil foe. The Professor asks Harry if he knows why he was able to defeat his opponent. Harry doesn't know. The professor explains that when Harry's mother sacrificed her life for him, she left him with the power of love in his hands. "And, "says Dumbledore, "the power of love causes evil to crumble when it touches it. Evil cannot stand to be touched by love!"
Harry Potter is both victim and hero throughout the narrative and film. He is not only a talented young wizard, but also a scarred orphan with abusive family as foster-parents, mortal enemies, mean teachers and malicious classmates. He is constantly bullied, but in the face of this grows in courage and grace. He triumphs by constantly developing virtues equal and opposite to the anger, insecurity, and pathetic, yet ruthless egotism that characterize his enemies. In learning to trust and to cooperate with others, he reestablishes the innocence he had when attacked by Voldemort as a baby.
In the world which J.K. Rowling crafts in narrative form, one clear point comes through: the first-fruits of suffering and exclusion can compassion and resilience, not rage and revenge. In her narrative world, the bullies are powerful at times, but they are ultimately losers. And we learn that although they may hurt us, we are not doomed to be their victims, because if we remain loyal, kind, and honest we will emerge victorious in the end. Perhaps we will remain scarred by these encounters, but we can remain morally whole - which is our greatest victory.
This is a wise and consoling lesson for children and teenagers who feel besieged or tormented by their peers, or uncertain as to what to do when the bullies descend upon them as scapegoats. No wonder so many children and adults are devouring these novels and ending up in the movie theaters! Don't we all need this message? Although life is hard and leaves us battered and scarred at times, there is hope. Above all we must care for one another, build community, support one another in our quests and challenges, not abandon one another in the darkness of despair, but persevere and overcome through the power of Goodness, through the power of God!
In Harry Potter, we are told that the magic wand chooses the wizard, not the other way around. Similarly, the Holy Spirit chooses us, to wrestle with us and rest upon us and grow within us. Through God, we are given power from within to overcome evil with good, to make choices for right and for justice. In Jesus Christ, the one who suffers for us and with us, we are touched by love and given the power of love at whose fingertips evil crumbles. Love overcomes evil. There is no greater lesson to learn and to carry away from the classrooms of Hogwart's School or from the School for Christian Living which we know as faith in Jesus Christ! You see, even Muggles can learn from the magic of faith! Amen.
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