(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.
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.”
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.