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 dwelling 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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Holy Humour

(Preached at Alma United Church & Melville United Church on April 23, 2017)

Call to Worship:

A pastor was speaking to a group of second-graders about the resurrection of Jesus. One student asked,

“What did Jesus say right after He came out of the grave?”

The pastor said,

“The Gospels do not tell us what Jesus said.”

The hand of one little girl shot up. “I know what Jesus said: He said,

‘Tah-dah!'”

Meditation:

A preacher’s young daughter asked, “Mommy, every Sunday when you first come out to preach, you sit up on the platform and bow your head. What are you doing?”

The mother replied, “I’m asking God to give me a good sermon?”

The little girl replied, “Then why doesn’t he?”

Would you pray with me and for me please…

The Sunday after Easter in the ancient Greek Orthodox church was traditionally called “Bright Sunday,” or “Holy Humour Sunday.” Recent online efforts have resurrected that tradition, and it’s easy to understand why.

Christianity from time to time has tended towards severity and humourlessness. We’ve undecorated our sanctuaries—taken away the stained glass windows and the carvings and the statues and the icons and the painted ceilings that were once used to instruct the illiterate faithful and direct our consciousness to the glory of God, but which eventually became more about the glory of the church.

Dancing and music were sometimes seen as detractions from worship that led to licentiousness, and were eliminated from worship.

Living was serious business, especially in former times when the work was back-breaking and constant even for the more well-to-do, and premature death from disease or accident was a fact of life.

Especially in Protestant theology, the cross and the sacrifice of Jesus was in the forefront. When faced with that sacrifice, laughter seems somehow inappropriate.

Mark’s gospel was the first gospel written. Both Matthew and Luke based significant portions of their gospels on the gospel of Mark. They also had significant input from other sources, most likely including a collection of sayings that scholars call “Q,” with quite probably some word-of-mouth stories added in.

One or more of those circulating stories must have included the accounts of what happened after the resurrection, because the most ancient manuscripts of Mark’s gospel ends here, with the women running away from the empty tomb, terrified and saying nothing to anyone. Perhaps he died before he wrote the rest of the story, or perhaps that first manuscript was torn and that last bit got lost, that part that tells us about the women spreading the good news to the disciples and about Jesus appearing among them. Or perhaps for Mark, in those early, harsh days after the resurrection and near death of the entire fledgling church, that was the end.

It reminds me of those churches where laughter and music and joy are not invited into worship.

We seem to be stuck on the cross, mindful of and perhaps grateful for the sacrifice of Christ, without really comprehending the entire truth.

We’re afraid of the resurrection.

Because in our world view, when people die, they stay dead, unless they become ghosts or zombies.

In our world view, when the leader of our small group is arrested and publicly executed for bucking the system, our new way of being, our new life, is over, and it’s back to the same old, same old.

In our world view, might makes right. Evil endures. Satan always wins.

Sometimes we forget that we meet as a church on Sunday, and why.

Not Friday, when Jesus was crucified.

Not Saturday, the traditional Sabbath for the Jewish tradition which gave us birth.

Sunday.

The day God played a great big cosmic joke.

“Ta-dah!

Look at me, Satan. Look at me, world! You can’t kill me, for death has no power in my world.”

We know that there was more to the story than Mark recorded. Not because someone later added not one but two endings to Mark’s gospel, and not because Matthew and Luke recorded the women going to the disciples.

We know because two thousand years later, we are here.

That tiny, frightened band of followers grew to over three thousand on the day of Pentecost.

Those three thousand have grown, so that today about 2.2 billion people are Christian. That’s one out of every three human beings alive today.

Sometimes we get stuck in Good Friday. When we look around our shrinking congregations, we are afraid.

I say to you, open up the door to this tomb, go outside, and rejoice in what God has done.

Christ is alive, and at work in the world.

Amen and hallelujah!