Defense Against the Dark Arts

(Preached at Alma United Church & Melville United Church, July 30, 2017, and Bervie United Church, August 13, 2017)

A few years ago, there was a big stir about a series of books written for young readers about a wizard boy named Harry Potter. Everyone was reading them—children who couldn’t read asked for them to be read as bedtime stories, and parents fought to be the lucky one to do the reading, older children read them at school, probably during math class, and adults read them on the subway trains on the way to work. In the space of a few short years, J.K. Rowling went from an unknown former English teacher living in a run-down flat to one of the richest women in the world, and one of the best-known.

Predictably, some conservative Christians protested. They wanted the book banned—it talked about witches and wizards as if they could be good, and claimed the books promoted the work of the devil. Pope Benedict XVI himself weighed in and said that the books were “subtle seductions” capable of corrupting young Christians.

Now, this sermon’s not really about this, but I’m always a bit bemused by those who protest fantasy novels like the Harry Potter series, or games like Dungeons and Dragons. Most of the folks I know who read such novels and play such games are firmly grounded in reality, are better educated than most, and understand science well enough to know that magic isn’t real. In fact, two of the most famous fantasy writers of all time, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, were very devout Christians, and their work speaks to this.

Joanne Rowling also was writing from a Christian perspective. Although the religious themes are more subtle than those in Lewis’ Narnia series, which are actual allegories of Biblical stories, they are there. From the start, Harry, who is an ordinary 11-year-old boy, is protected from the bad wizard Lord Voldemort, not by his skill, nor by weapons of power, but by the love his mother showed in sacrificing her life for him.

Um…

Perhaps the Christian message in the Harry Potter series isn’t so subtle after all, is it?

In the books, as Harry grows and learns, he becomes more powerful as a wizard, but so does his enemy, who begins the books as a shadow of his former self and gradually, through use of the dark arts, gains in power.

In the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry is now 13 years old, and is beginning to learn those spells that will repel creatures of evil. He gets training to repel two in particular.

Bogarts are creatures that like to haunt enclosed dark places, such as closets and desk drawers and the space under the bed. They have no shape of their own, but take the form of whatever the viewer most fears.

The counter charm is riddikulus, which turns the bogart into something to laugh at.

Harry’s friend Neville fears Professor Snape, the potions master, more than anything else. But when the riddikulus  spell is cast, the Professor Snape-shaped bogart turns into a Professor Snape who is wearing the clothes of Neville’s grandmother—a long, lace-trimmed dress, a towering hat topped with a moth-eaten vulture, and carrying a big red handbag.

The bogart confronts Harry’s friend Ron, who is terrified of spiders. Riddikulus! The spider’s legs vanish, and it rolls over and over.

One by one, the students deal with their worst fears, changing the bogart that impersonates them into something that they can laugh at.

We all have bogarts in our lives—fear of things that we know are imaginary, but which paralyze us nevertheless. Like a young child who fears the monster under the bed, we worry about things that will probably never come to pass.

Jesus tells us not to worry about what we will wear or eat or sleep, but we worry anyhow. A few years back, my daughter was in her first year at Laurier University, living in residence. But residence places are only guaranteed for the first year—in second year and beyond, students are expected to find a place to live in the surrounding community.

Her form of the riddikulus spell went like this—I’ll be living in a box on the street corner. Her friend Audrey eventually joined her in that box. They knew the fear wasn’t real—their homes in Guelph weren’t so far from Laurier that they would ever have been in any danger of not being able to return to school because they didn’t have a place to live. But the box image helped them find the humour in the situation, which gave them courage to continue until they found a couple of other students and a five-bedroom apartment to share for the next three years.

Public speakers are often advised to picture their audience naked, which is another form of the riddikulus spell.

But there are creatures more powerful than bogarts, called dementors. A dementor is a skeleton-like creature wrapped in shadow that sucks the joy and energy out of a person. A dementor’s kiss can suck out a soul.

A dementor cannot be repelled by a riddikulus spell. They don’t have the more concrete form of a bogart, so they can’t be changed into a concrete ridiculous form. Instead, Harry is taught to cast a patronus spell, which creates a non-corporeal animal that protects the wizard from the worst of the dementor’s effects. The dementor is still there, but it can no longer paralyze the wizard with the fear it brings.

Like bogarts, dementors are not real. And yet, of course, they are. Many if not most of us have been through times when life doesn’t seem worth living. Our joy, our energy, our ability to think things through—all gone.

After my sister’s death, I felt very little for quite a while. Every day was a struggle. I wondered if I would be better off dead like her. Those days are thankfully gone, but I still have times when I feel doubt and dread for no reason.

The night before I wrote this sermon, I wrote, “I’m feeling unworthy today. Tired. Doubtful. At the beginning of the summer, I was rarin’ to go. Excited and full of new ideas.”

What happened?

I don’t know. I do know that I see the effects of dementors at work all the time. Folks caught up in addiction to alcohol or drugs or sex or violence or material possessions, who on some level realize that their attempts to scare off the dementors that torment them are actually making the dementors stronger. The alcohol and drugs fuel the depression, they don’t get rid of it. The sex and violence, far from making a person feel more powerful, make a person fear weakness so much that they can never admit that they’re not in charge. The material possessions form walls and barriers, but even the people who own them can see that they can disappear in an instant.

Fortunately, we have, in Christ and in the Bible, been given the most powerful patronus charms ever.

Memorizing comforting scripture verses reminds us of God’s love when times are dark.

In God’s house there are many swelling places… I am indeed going to prepare a place for you…

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

…nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, toady or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.

Take that, dementors!

Re-reading the stories of the adulterer and murderer who was King David, or the story of that collaborator of persecutors who was Paul, or the sexually promiscuous woman at the well or the cheating tax collector who was Zaccheus or the doubters Thomas and Sarah, or the trickster Jacob or the murderer Cain, we hear over and over and over again that God loves us no matter the sin, that God has a place in God’s New Creation even for us.

Singing songs of faith is also a powerful reminder of God’s love. Like Amazing Grace, written by the former slave trader John Newton, or It Is Well With My Soul, written by Horatio Spafford after his only son died, he lost everything in the great fire in Chicago, and his four daughters were lost when the ship they were on sank. He wrote the poem while sailing to be with his wife, near the spot where his daughters died.

My most recent patronus has taken the form of listening to Sirius XM radio channel 63, The Message, which plays contemporary Christian music. If you don’t have satellite radio, you can go on YouTube and listen to songs like Chainbreaker, EvenIf, Mended, Beloved, and Still.

None of these scriptures, stories or songs tell us that we will live a life of material abundance with no worries or setbacks. As long as we live, we will live a human life with human troubles and the bogarts and the dementors will do their best to suck the joy out of life.

But our patronus is up to all that. It reminds us that God is more powerful than any sin or evil that human hearts and minds can devise.

Our scriptures and our songs and our experience tell us over and over that we are not alone.

That we are loved.

That we are forgiven.

That we are free.

Amen!

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The Nuts on the Family Tree

(Preached at Ripley-Bervie/Kinloss Pastoral Charge, Christian Family Sunday, May 14, 2017)

I was born in 1960 into what was then a very typical family: I had a mother and a father who were married to each other, and within a couple more years, I would have, in addition to my parents, a brother and a sister. We lived in a nice suburban semi-detached house, amidst lots of other families who were, at least on the outside, just like us.

Everybody went to church on Sunday. The fathers worked and the mothers stayed home, and there were no couples without children, or gay couples, or single parents, except maybe in the subsidized housing down the street and around the corner. Everybody was white, until the woman down the street married a black man.

Even as a child I knew that this 20th century ideal wasn’t universal, though. I knew it because for a few years, my parents were foster parents to babies who weren’t so lucky—infants who had been born to single mothers, or to parents otherwise unable to care for them. In 1969, we adopted one of those children—my brother Bill had been featured in the “Today’s Child” section of the Toronto Star. He’d been difficult to place because of his mixed Asian and Caucasian heritage.

My father had been an only child but I had, on my mother’s side, numerous aunts and uncles and first cousins. On Sunday afternoons, we, along with many of those aunts and uncles and cousins would converge on my grandparents’ house to talk and play and have roast chicken for dinner. All of my cousins’ families were just like us, except for my Aunt Shirley and Uncle Ronnie and their kids, who were Catholic. I thought that was a little odd—exotic even!

This was the family I grew up in.

Actually, this was the family I thought I grew up in.

It was only later on in life that I learned that there were many secrets. There are, in my immediate and extended family, adopted family members, divorced and remarried family members, family members who have become pregnant before marriage, adult family members who have never married, gay and lesbian family members.

In 2015, I had the joy of attending my brother’s wedding in St. Lucia. His wife Lisa is a lovely person. We met her family before the wedding. Her mother, and her sister, and her mother’s current husband. We also met Lisa’s biological father, and the biological father of her sister, who had adopted Lisa when she was an infant. At the wedding, all three men—Lisa’s biological father, her adoptive father, and her stepfather, stood side-by-side wearing identical outfits, and when the officiant asked, “Who gives this woman to be married?” they answered in unison, “We do!” Who walked Lisa down the aisle? My brother’s son Patrick, now her stepson.

My family tree is like some kind of exotic hybrid that bears apples and pears and peaches and walnuts and beechnuts all on branches that come from the same trunk!

And the truth is, I think this exotic, beautiful, exciting tree is more “normal” than the “Leave it to Beaver” family with two parents, one male, one female, and the two-point-one children that television would have us believe is the ideal to strive for.

I was taught as a child that that “ideal” family was not only a cultural ideal, but one ordained by God. God created them male and female, and children should grow up to fall in love with and marry one and only one person of the opposite sex, who is not closely related to them by blood, and have children. This nuclear family should live in their own suburban castle, and be self-supporting, but they should definitely visit the grandparents on a regular basis.

But a close study of the Biblical witness refutes this interpretation of what a family should be. Abraham married his half-sister Sarah, and had a child by his wife’s slave girl. Sarah didn’t have a child until she was well into old age. Isaac grew up, got married, and had twins who were rivals from the moment they were conceived. Jacob grew up and had two wives and many children, some of whom sold their brother into slavery.

David married Saul’s daughter Michel, and Abigail, and Ahinoam, and Maacah, and Haggith, and Eglah. He committed adultery with Bathsheba and got her pregnant, then sent her husband to his death in battle and married her.

As one of my classmates said in a seminar on marriage, the biblical standard for marriage is polygamy!

By the time of the New Testament, this practice is dying out. By the time 1 Timothy was written, it was obviously becoming viewed with disfavour, as according to this letter, a bishop was to be above reproach, the husband of only one wife.

The Biblical witness and a study of different cultures and times serve to show us that what I grew up thinking was a “normal” family structure isn’t universal, or normal, or ordained by God. It is simply one of the many ways human beings can covenant with one another to support each other and nurture the young.

And that’s essentially what a family is—a group of human beings brought together by covenant to support and nurture one another.

The two readings this morning were chosen to highlight not the form the family takes, but the function.

Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. They were going to kill him, but decided that selling him was the better option. Maybe they felt bad about committing murder, or perhaps the chance to make a little profit appealed to them. However it came to be, Joseph endured years of servitude, and unjust accusations leading to time in prison, and finally found himself as a top advisor to Pharaoh.

You’d think that after such a life, he would cut his brothers off, forget that he even had a family. But when his family is threatened with starvation, he’s there. He plays a few games with them, it’s true, but he acknowledges the kinship and steps up to the plate to do his part when it’s needed.

In the gospel reading, Jesus is dying on the cross, and his mother, presumably widowed by this time, is weeping below. Jesus turns to one of his disciples and says, “This woman is now your mother. Take care of her as you would your own.” And that disciple stepped up to the plate and did his part, taking her into his own house.

That’s what families are for—mutual support and caring that is given freely, and not bought or bartered for. Faithfulness, not to the form of the covenant—to the marriage or to who lives with you or to who is related to you by birth—but to the function, to loving and nurturing and caring for one another.

The church, at it’s best, is a family.

The last time I was here, I went after the service at St. Andrew’s with my friend Heather, who is as much my sister as anyone born to my mother could be, to have lunch at Boston Pizza. By now, some of you know that her husband is from Kincardine, and that she knows some folks who live around here, so I expected that if anyone knew either one of us, it would be her.

But as we were going out to my car, someone said my name. “Ruth!” she called, and I turned around.

I didn’t recognize her or her husband, but I thought maybe someone from here or [the other church] had come to lunch.

“It’s Shirley Marie and Ron ******,” she said.

My jaw dropped.

Shirley Marie and Ron were members of Rexdale United Church when I was growing up. Rexdale is the first church family which truly nurtured and loved me. I was confirmed there, married there, and my first child was baptized there.

Ron and Shirley Marie hadn’t seen me in almost thirty years when they hailed me in that parking lot, yet they knew me and were delighted to see me.

Because they’re part of the family.

I went back to Rexdale once, to celebrate the 80th birthday of a long-time friend. Since I left 30 years ago, it’s amalgamated with another church and become Martingrove United, yet as long as there are folks there who were part of Rexdale when I was growing up, I know I will have a welcome.

Since I’ve moved to Guelph, Trinity United has been my home. I’m not always there on a Sunday, but I manage to attend regularly enough to check in with my church family, and they can check in with me.

We support, care for and nurture one another in Christ.

When I have gone through difficult times, they’ve been there with the prayer shawls and prayers, casseroles and food, and even money.

When others in the church are facing difficult times, I join with the congregation in providing the same care and support that I’ve received.

We sometimes get to choose who is part of our family—we choose our spouses, we choose to have children, we choose those dear friends who are as close as kin to us. We can choose which church we attend. Other family members we get stuck with—our parents, our grandparents, our siblings.

But whether we choose them or are simply gifted them by God, we are called as Christians to love them and care for them to the best of our ability. Even if sometimes they are a little nuts.

Amen.