Sunday, August 21, 2011

What God Intends: Sermon on Genesis 45:1-15

It’s as if this were a movie theater, and we’ve just walked in on the last reel. It’s one of those Biblical epics, with long sandy vistas and long dusty robes. We are in a glittering palace in a lush river valley that runs through a desert. On one side of the room we see a bronzed young man, impeccably dressed, clean-shaven, bedecked with gold, his eyes rimmed with kohl. He might be an Egyptian Pharaoh, and in terms of power, he practically is the Pharaoh. And on the other side of the room… eleven men, haggard, looking like they have been through a famine—which they have. Their clothes are humble, their beards are long, and they are bedecked with nothing but their desperation to keep their family together, and to spare their elderly father the grief he cannot bear.

In some ways this is the classic story of a blended family. Jacob longed to marry Rachel, the woman he loved, but her wily father had tricked him into marrying Leah, Rachel’s older sister. According to the custom of the day, each woman had a handmaiden, or a slave, depending upon your perspective, and those women, too, added to the tribes. In the end, Jacob fathered twelve sons and untold numbers of daughters by four women. His beloved wife, Rachel, was the mother of the two youngest, Joseph and Benjamin. And so, in the messy way of families, there were rivalries and jealousies, all of which were brought to the boiling point because Joseph was a dreamer.

We’re first introduced to Joseph as a seventeen year-old, and he’s either incredibly arrogant or pathetically na├»ve. When you are the favorite son of your elderly father, so much so that he gives you a super-special, extravagantly beautiful coat, and all eleven of your brothers therefore hate your guts, it would be wise to tread lightly, to choose your words carefully. But Joseph apparently doesn’t pick up on these not-so-subtle social cues, because he excitedly tells his brothers about two dreams he has had, that would seem to describe him as being top dog in this family already seething with discontent. And so naturally, his brothers end up hating him even more.

The brothers discuss their options. One faction just wants to kill the annoying pipsqueak. But Rueben, the eldest, persuades them to simply rough him up and throw him into a pit; he secretly plans to get Joseph safely back to their father. But when a caravan goes by on its way to Egypt, another brother, Judah, suggests they profit from their little scheme, so they sell Joseph as a slave, and pocket the proceeds. To cover their tracks, they dip his beautiful, colorful dream-coat in goat’s blood, and break their father’s heart with a story about Joseph being torn apart by a wild animal.

Thus begins Joseph’s odyssey. Now, Joseph has some natural abilities, not to mention the backing and blessing of God, so he pretty quickly finds himself in a position of responsibility and authority. And he also has some natural charisma, perhaps even beauty, and Potiphar’s wife gets a starring role in our film as history’s first would-be cougar. She makes a play for the young man, and when he resists, she has him thrown into jail. This, ironically, is where Joseph’s gifts really begin to shine. He interprets dreams for two of his fellow inmates, and the accuracy of his words gives him a reputation. When the Pharaoh has troubling dreams, Joseph is brought to him to interpret them. Joseph tells the Pharaoh that his dreams are warning him of an impending seven-year famine, for which they will have seven prosperous years to prepare. Joseph advises the Pharaoh to find a wise man—a wise, insightful, dream-interpreting young man, perhaps—to put in charge of shoring away grain for the famine-time. Joseph is abruptly out of jail and into the best job he’s ever had. The only person with more power in all of Egypt is the Pharaoh himself.

The famine doesn’t just hit Egypt, though. Joseph’s family back in Canaan find themselves face-to-face with the prospect of starvation, and like many others from that region, they travel to Egypt, the land that was prepared. Ten of Joseph’s brothers make the trip. But their father Jacob keeps Benjamin, the youngest, back at home, for fear of losing the only other tie he has to his beloved Rachel, now long dead.

And so the brothers present themselves to the great Overseer of Egypt, whom they have no idea whatsoever is the arrogant boy they tossed in a ditch and then sold into slavery, because they didn’t like the way he dreamed.

So, what does it take to forgive someone? For hating you. For hurting you. For throwing you into a literal or metaphorical ditch, into slavery, into prison, into heartache. For lying about you, and in doing that, hurting others whom you love. What does it take?

Forgiveness, to hear Jesus talk, is at the heart of what it means to be a follower of his, and that includes forgiveness from both angles—receiving it and giving it. Followers of Jesus are encouraged to receive the great gift of God’s forgiveness, and we are also advised of our responsibility to forgive one another. I’m not going to try here to answer the question of the deep mystery of God’s forgiveness. I’m more interested, right now, in talking about how we forgive, and why we forgive, and why we should forgive.

What does it take to forgive someone?

First of all, you have to see forgiveness as an option. You’d be amazed at how many people drop out right there. And let’s be clear: Joseph has all the cards at this moment in the story. All the power is in his hands. He could throw the whole lot of them in jail, all eleven brothers, and give them a taste to what he’s had to endure.

But, of course, that’s not what he does. Joseph seems to want to forgive. Still, he requires some sense that his brothers have truly repented of what they did to him. That seems reasonable. It’s far easier to forgive someone when you can see that they are sorry. And Joseph is looking for real, tangible evidence of this. So here’s what he does: He tests them. Without letting them know his true identity, Joseph demands that they produce Benjamin, the youngest—the one who stayed home, the one who is his full brother. And then he lays a trap by having a servant plant a valuable cup in Benjamin’s luggage. When Benjamin is caught red-handed, Joseph watches very closely to see how his brothers will handle the situation. Will they once again punish a son of the favorite wife? Will they cut and run, leaving Benjamin to fend for himself? Will they concoct yet another story to account for a brother’s absence? Will they break their father’s heart all over again?

No. They won’t. They don’t. They pass the test, more than pass it. They plead for their brother. They tell Joseph of their old father in the land of Canaan, whose heart they can’t bear to break. And Judah, the one who suggested they sell Joseph in the first place, offers himself as a ransom. He offers to go to jail in Benjamin’s place.

Joseph can see the brothers’ remorse for the pain they have brought on their family; He can see their willingness to protect the youngest, even at the cost of their own freedom. He can see that they embrace Benjamin as one of their own.

We’re not God. God is able to forgive freely. We usually require some sense that our forgiveness is not being squandered on those who don’t really deserve it. There’s nothing wrong with that—that’s so very human of us. But it kind of misses the point. Because, the truth about forgiveness, the counter-intuitive reality, is that we need to forgive for our own sakes even more than we need to forgive for the sake of the other person. Hurt and anger are dark, stuffy, claustrophobic prisons we are locked inside. When we are able to forgive, we step out into the fresh air and the warm sunshine. We feel the grass soft beneath our feet. Joseph sets up his tests, and his trials, to see whether his brothers should be forgiven, but the truth is, Joseph needs to forgive his brothers for himself. He needs his family. He needs to be reconciled. He needs the warm sun and the fresh air and to step out of that prison.

And that’s what is happening this final, climactic scene, also known as “the Big Reveal.” I am Joseph, the Egyptian-seeming young ruler states. Actually, sobs… the tears of Joseph are abundant in this beautiful scene in the lavish palace. His heart has been breaking to forgive, and no one is more relieved that he can forgive his brothers than he is. And his forgiveness comes with his fresh re-interpretation of the dream that has been his life: This is what God intended all along, he says. God sent me here—through your actions, even through your cruelty—God sent me here to save all our lives. I suspect God also sent Joseph there to teach all twelve brothers the essentials of repentance and forgiveness. And by teaching these twelve brothers, the patriarchs of the twelve tribes, God teaches all God’s people. God teaches you and God teaches me.

Joseph is able to interpret the dream of his life as being all about God’s good intention. That is not to say that God intended the harm that came to Joseph. Rather, it is to say that God’s good intentions for us have the potential to be more powerful than the our bad intentions towards one another, that God can use our hurtful actions, even our cruel and angry behavior, to do good. God takes the broken fragments of our lives and crafts a gorgeous mosaic, beyond our wildest dreams. It is a view of wide open spaces.

God intends for us to forgive. God creates us and places in families, where we are taught what it is to love, and be loved, and to be hurt and let down and all the rest. And God shows us, again and again, that forgiveness and reconciliation are the way out of the prisons we fashion of the pain we have endured. God shows us, again and again, that we don’t have to live there, that we can step out into the sun and the breeze, and let the air fill our lungs and give us life. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Beach Reading 3:"Good Harbor" by Anita Diamant

Preached Sunday August 7.....

Matthew 14:22-33

What a strange beginning to this morning’s passage from Matthew’s gospel. Jesus “immediately” sends his friends away, right after—what? We have to go back, turn a page, to see. It turns out, immediately after an enormous picnic of the kind that rivals the Spiedie Fest for attendance—5000 men, not including the women and children. So, 10,000? 15,000? Jesus and his friends have been the hosts at an enormous outdoor table, where all have been welcomed, and the sick and hurting have been healed, and all have been given bread for their journey.

And then Jesus immediately sends his friends away, to go it on their own for a while, so that he can rest, and go where he feels nearer to God. Jesus needs time to be alone to pray. So he sends his friends away. He makes them get on a boat—something they should be more or less comfortable doing, since most of them got their start as fisher-folk. And when the evening falls, Jesus is, at last, alone.

“But by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them” [Matthew 14:24].

Let’s talk about what it feels like to be battered by the waves of life, to feel that the winds are against you.

For some it might be the experience of drowning in their responsibilities—the mother of the very young child, the son of the very elderly parent. The owner of a small business struggling to stay afloat, the head of the department making the hard decisions about whom to set adrift in layoffs. For the people of Tuscaloosa, it is the memory of 190 mile per hour winds that destroyed large swaths of their city last April.

What does it feel like to be battered by the waves of life, to feel that the winds are against you? The novel Good Harbor, by Anita Diamant, answers that question through its portrayal of two women.

For Joyce, it is the rocky ground of her marriage, and the distance she feels from her increasingly irritable and independent adolescent daughter.

For Kathleen, it is the discovery that she has breast cancer, and the excruciating memory of a very young son who died.

These two women, both of them Jews but neither of them particularly religious, meet at synagogue one Friday evening, and strike up a conversation that feels like the beginning of something important. Ultimately they find in one another the good harbor that is true and deep friendship. That’s the heart of this novel: the story of a friendship, Good Harbor, also the name of a patch of beach in Gloucester, on the North Shore of Boston, MA.

I wonder: if we peel back the layers of the gospel story, might we find there the story of friendship, as well? The kind of friendship that reaches out a hand to grab us when we feel like we’re drowning?

Kathleen sends Joyce away at one point. She stops answering the phone, she stops returning calls. She is undergoing a course of radiation treatments, which are giving her panic attacks. She is also haunted by terrible memories of twenty five years earlier, the accidental death of her three-year-old son. Much as she cares for Joyce, there comes a period when Kathleen believes she needs to be alone to deal with those battering waves.

And Jesus’ friends in the boat, being battered by the waves, how are they faring? Not well. The Sea of Galilee isn’t very big, but its storms are notoriously deadly. Jesus’ friends long for the reassurance of his presence, and finally, sometime between three and six in the morning, they experience it. Jesus comes toward them, walking on the wind-battered waves.

If we can step back from the miraculous nature of that moment in the story, I wonder what we would find there? An image, perhaps, for the way in which friendship helps us to navigate the storms and shoals of life?

At another point in Good Harbor, Kathleen takes Joyce to climb Salt Island, a modest though challenging hill that can only be reached after the appearance of a sandbar. The author writes,

The deserted sandbar was flat, hard-packed and cool under their feet. “It’s like a magic highway,” Kathleen said, “It appears and disappears. Brigadoon.”

“Mont-Saint-Michel—minus the castle,” said Joyce. “And it’s pretty close to walking on water.”

“Or parting the seas.”

“With a hint of danger, don’t you think? The outside chance of getting stranded, like Robinson Crusoe.”

“Well, within sight of a snack bar,” Kathleen said, pointing at the weather-beaten shack onshore.

Their laughter carried over the water.[i]

The climbing of Salt Island gives the friends a multi-faceted vista: the rocks and crags and scrub pines through which they’ve climbed, the beach with its walkers and wanderers below, a mansion that dominates the shoreline, and the view straight out to the sea, the cerulean and ever-changing ocean depths.

A good friendship gives us a multi-faceted view. It allows us to see things both up close, in detail, and also with the perspective that can come with the right amount of distance. It can be, a little, like walking on water. It’s not that the shoals and storms are not there, the billows and the waves that flow over us. But with a friend we feel that we can rise above them. There is that hand, reaching out to grab us as we sink. We lift one another, we raise each other up. There, we can take in the view.

When Jesus sends his friends away, they are faced with the problem of figuring out how to live without his daily, hourly reassuring presence. So are we. One of the ways we do so is by learning to recognize his presence in the good harbor offered by those around us. What if our friendships afforded us an opportunity to discover anew the power of Jesus’ promise to always be Immanuel, God-With-Us? I want to share again a poem I have shared with you before, by Teresa of Avila.

Christ has no body but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

Compassion on this world,

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,

Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,

Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Christ has no body now but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

Compassion on this world.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Jesus has no body, no hands on earth except these hands, these bodies we have been given. Bodies that become weak and frail and get cancer, and hands that hold and soothe and heal. Bodies that climb hills and mountains, and hands that massage the tired muscles later. Bodies that cower under doorjambs when the tornado is coming, and hands that reach out with food and medicine and hammer and nails to do the work of repair.

Kathleen and Joyce are God-With-Us for one another, offering one another the good harbor of their friendship. Five people from this community will be God-With-Us for the people of Tuscaloosa. We all have opportunities to be God-With-Us for one another each and every day. But first, we will let Jesus and his friends host us at this small indoor table, where all are welcome, and the sick and hurting can find healing, and we will all be given bread for the journey. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Anita Diamant, Good Harbor (New York: Scribner, 2001), 139.

Beach Reading 2: "Freedom" by Jonathan Franzen

Preached Sunday July 31....

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

~Galatians 5:1, 13-14

What would the story of your life sound like if it were written by one of your neighbors? Not friends, mind you. Rather, the people with whom you share the neighborhood, those who see you coming and going on the street where you live. How would they tell the story of your life? What things do you think they would pick out to mention—the color of your house, the make and model of your car? The number of children you have, the fact that you live alone? What would they know about you with certainty, and what could they only guess?

The novel “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen is bookended—it begins and ends—with a panoramic view of the main characters from the point of view of their neighbors. The Berglunds are the family in question, Walter and Patty and their children, Joey and Jessica. The first chapter gives us twenty years of their lives in twenty-four pages, as seen by those who simultaneously know them with a kind of distance and detachment, and who at the same time know them better than you’d think.

We learn how they came to a decaying neighborhood of St. Paul as young newlyweds, and set about renovating an old Victorian house they got for a song. We learn that Patty had been a basketball star in college until she blew out her knee. Here she is:

Tall, ponytailed, absurdly young, pushing a stroller past stripped cars and broken beer bottles… she might have been carrying all the hours of her day in the string bags that hung from her stroller. Behind her you could see the baby-encumbered preparations for a morning of baby-encumbered errands; ahead of her, an afternoon of Public Radio, the Silver Palate Cookbook, cloth diapers, drywall compound, and latex paint; and then, Goodnight Moon, then zinfandel. She was already fully the thing that was just starting to happen to the rest of the street.[i] Patty is a go-getter whose primary concern, whose vocation, is her family.

Walter, on the other hand, is a corporate lawyer who is really considered too nice to be a lawyer. Still, the twenty-year panorama hints at some kind of enormous and unpredictable change that has come upon him over the years. After the children had gone off to college, Walter and Patty decamped to Washington DC, where he made some kind of spectacular mess of his professional life; he is described in a national news story as arrogant, high-handed, and ethically compromised, adjectives that didn’t make sense to the neighbors who knew him as the kind and smiling man who adored his wife and children and cared about the environment so much that he rode his bicycle to work.

What caused one of the children to have a falling out with his parents, and move across the street to live with the neighbors whose daughter he is dating? Why did the beautifully tended Victorian house become increasingly dilapidated as the garden and lawn went to seed? What was the nature of the unhappiness that clung to the Berglunds like a toxic cloud? What happened to Walter and Patty and their children? How did they get from here to there, and is it possible to get back again? Just a few of the plot points of this long and engrossing novel include, second chances, neighborhood class warfare, the rise of a rock star, the development of a bird sanctuary, extramarital affairs, a college job with a company that sounds suspiciously like Halliburton, and a fatal car accident. Yet, one could easily sum up the book by saying it’s the story of a marriage, and a family, and the uses and limits of personal freedom.

What do we mean when we speak of “freedom”? The dictionary gives us about eleven intertwining definitions, including “personal liberty;” “autonomy;” “independence;” and “the ability to choose between alternative actions.” Freedom is a treasured notion for us Americans—it is one of the great concepts that drives everything from our conversations about the debt ceiling to our opinions on things like marriage equality. And—not surprisingly—we tend to disagree, as Americans, on which things make us either more free or less free. For Patty, certain things that happen to her—a trauma in high school, for example, and the way her parents respond—seriously challenge her freedom. This is true of all of us: Our ability to act with autonomy, or to choose well from various options, can depend on forces partially or even entirely outside our control. It can be as simple as an accident of birth that determines whether one is able to act or even feel “free.”

John Calvin, the grandfather of Presbyterianism, recognized this when he made the point that we are not as free as we tend to think we are. Calvin believed that, because of original sin, free will in human beings has been so damaged that we are unable to choose the good without God’s intervention on our behalf, intervention in the form of grace. And I think we all have seen the truth of that, whether in our own lives, or those of others we see around us, or even in the biblical narrative. Here I’m thinking of Jacob—a character so engaging and enthralling, at least in part, because he continually chooses to do things that get him into so much hot water.

Patty Berglund is a character like that. While the first and last chapters tell the story of the Berglunds from the perspective of their neighbors, there are also two long chapters that tell the story from Patty’s perspective. She writes an autobiography at the suggestion of her therapist, titled “Mistakes Were Made,” and it’s there, in her pages, that I found myself most absorbed and moved.

A number of us here at UPC have spent the last year immersed in a book called SoulFeast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life. Not only have we been reading it; we’ve been trying it out, trying it on, doing things like fasting and reading scripture and praying. One of the chapters of SoulFeast is called “Of Conscience and Consciousness: Self-Examination, Confession and Awareness.” I thought of that chapter as I read Patty Berglund’s autobiography. Mistakes Were Made. The simple act of writing can give us a perspective on our lives and our actions that we miss when we simply think or talk about them. There is something about the act of committing our stories to paper that is surprisingly powerful. When we pick up a pen or sit down to a blank screen at the computer, we can be taken by surprise at the things that pour out of us. We can find in them those hints of grace that can lead us out of the mire of our abysmal choices and stuckness. At least, that seems to be what happens to Patty.

“For freedom Christ has set us free,” Paul tells us. But Paul is crystal clear that freedom is not a synonym for lack of constraint. We are called to freedom, yes, but a very peculiar kind of freedom: the kind of freedom which enables us to choose to love one another as we love ourselves; the kind of freedom in which we are willing to give ourselves in service to and for one another. The kind of freedom that can sing, “Blest Be the Ties That Bind.” We are called to the kind of freedom in which, even when mistakes are made, we are able and willing to seek reconciliation, to ask forgiveness, even to learn and grow. And mistakes will be made, because we remain gloriously and maddeningly human. True freedom, it turns out, does not mean the state of being unfettered. It is one of God’s great paradoxes, that we are more free when we bind ourselves in love to others. We are always most free when we step into the stream of God’s grace. One of those eleven dictionary definitions of “freedom” is “ease and grace (of movement).” Freedom is ease and grace within the boundaries of God’s love.

The story our neighbors could tell about us might be dull or fascinating, filled with inaccuracies or dead on target. But the real story of our lives is the one we write with every choice. The true story of our lives is the one in which we are not the lone central character, but are always listening for the whispering voice of our first and most constant life partner, God. The truly exciting story of our lives emerges when we learn to use our freedom for others, for the tie that binds us, for love. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Jonathan Franzen, Freedom (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), 4.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Of Horcruxes and House-Elves: A Sermon on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

My plan for late July and early August was a four-week sermon series called "Beach Reading," featuring sermons inspired by novels I've been reading (or, in this case, re-reading). The first one was supposed to be preached July 17, but that day I was in Atlantic City with my dad in the hospital. He is now doing rehab in a nursing home in the town where I live, which is a great blessing and relief.

This was actually preached July 24. The rest to follow....

Sometime in the fall of 1999 I received a package in the mail. It was from my mother, a lover both of books and of her grandchildren. It contained the first three Harry Potter novels, two in paperback and the most recently released one in hardcover. There was a note, which read, “I have been reading all about these books. I thought the children might enjoy them.” And, oh, we did, all we children. We embarked on a five-year-long project of reading aloud, every Harry Potter book, complete with distinctive voices and sound effects, which lasted clear until book six came out. By that time, we were all so frantic to know what happened, we ended up stealing the books back and forth from one another until we’d gotten to the ending, teary-eyed and breathless.

The story begins as all good and wondrous tales do: with magic and mystery. A little child is left on a doorstep, a modern-day Moses in the bulrushes of county Surrey, England. The boy has a scar just above his eyes shaped like a bolt of lightning, and a mop of black hair. He isn’t old enough yet to know the hard truth of his life: he is an orphan. His parents have died offering their bodies as his protection against an evil wizard, and he will now live harsh childhood years as the unwelcome guest of spiteful and non-magical relatives, people wizards would call “muggles.” But we the readers know: this is Harry Potter, and we the readers suspect: he will grow up to be a good wizard. So the story begins.

To enter the world of Harry Potter is to find your way into a place both familiar and entirely new. There are families, parents and children, and pets, and schools and schoolbooks and classrooms, and bullies and wonderful, lifelong friendships. But the families mostly carry wands and do magic, and the classes are named things like ‘Defense Against the Dark Arts’ and ‘Potions,’ and they take place in a grand magical castle, Hogwarts’ School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There are pets, yes, cats, but also owls, and toads, and magical creatures—centaurs and dragons and goblins, oh my.

It would be impossible, foolhardy, to try to tell you the entire story of Harry Potter—it is a story that takes more than 4000 pages to unfold if you were to read the books, or nearly 20 hours if you were to watch the films. The chances of my being able to make sense of the whole thing in these few minutes are slim. So, instead, let me tell you about just two characters, characters on whom the plot turns, and whose actions reveal, to me, so much of the brokenness and beauty, the evil and goodness, that are reflected in the story.

“He who must not be named”: that’s how we first hear of Lord Voldemort, and the pure fear behind that name tells us much we need to know. This powerful and evil wizard has a bottomless, unquenchable thirst for power and domination. He thinks nothing of cruelly torturing or murdering anyone who stands in his path. He initiates a campaign of separating out pureblood wizards from half-blood or muggle-born (in the Harry Potter books, muggles occasionally produce magically gifted children). He recruits like-minded witches and wizards to aid him in his planned conquest. And the person he pursues with single-minded fury is Harry Potter, because Harry was identified in a prophecy as being the one wizard who was a match for Voldemort’s power.

And, though he is just about evil personified, Voldemort is still a fully fleshed out character. We learn about his painful childhood, growing up in an orphanage. Yes, he and Harry are both orphans. We learn of his schooldays, his isolation, and the way in which he turns to dark magic to feel more powerful. Still, his turn to evil is a choice: he rejects the goodness of those who try to help him. We witness his cruel brutality, his sadism. To put him into a modern, understandable category: his psychology is that of a serial killer. We learn that the thing that most disgusts him is human mortality—he regards death as a pathetic weakness. And so we learn that the evil wizard has intentionally created seven horcruxes. Horcruxes, in the world of Harry Potter, are magical objects that function as containers for the soul, and they can enable their creator to attain immortality. But in order to create a horcrux, one must commit an act of supreme evil that literally rips the soul apart: one must commit murder.

“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” [Luke 12:34]. Jesus tells us that it matters, those things to which we commit our souls. There is no human project more guaranteed to rob us of our humanity than the urge to dominate and subjugate others to our will. And there is no human project that has done more damage than the effort to identify and demonize and weed out those who are not like us. And it’s not only Voldemorts and Stalins and Hitlers who take on such projects. We read daily reports of the horrors inflicted by those who cannot tolerate difference. We all have it within us to become little dictators, whether of our children or our co-workers or our spouses or even our parents. We all put our souls at risk when we try to stamp out the “other.”

In his campaigns against the “other,” and against that ultimate “other” reality, death, Voldemort sacrifices his most precious treasure: his soul. He boxes it up in little trinkets, which he hides like a furtive schoolboy with secret stashes of candy. Voldemort is single-minded, but he is far from whole-hearted. He is just the opposite. His is a heart in shreds.

“Where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.” The Harry Potter books, “Deathly Hallows” in particular, issue an invitation to us to learn what it is to be whole-hearted, to be alert to the things that threaten to fragment our souls. They remind us to store up for ourselves the true treasures, those that will build up and bind together and mend God’s creation, rather than tearing it apart.

The second character I want to talk about is Dobby. The magical world of Harry Potter is not a perfect world. There are aspects to it that are disturbing, even aside from Lord Voldemort and his evil plans. In the second book the reader becomes aware that there is a servant class in this world, a class of beings who are responsible for the appearance of all the yummy foods on the enormous tables at Hogwarts, and for the upkeep of the students’ dormitories, and even for the maintenance of the homes of older, wealthier wizarding families. This servant class is comprised of house-elves, and their lot is not all that different from that of slaves. House-elves are tiny creatures, no more than two or three feet in height. Instead of clothing they wear discarded pillowcases and tea towels. In order for a house-elf to be freed, his master must present him with an article of clothing, which most wizards try to avoid doing at all costs. Despite their slave status, house-elves maintain a code of such strict loyalty, even to the most evil of masters, that they will physically punish themselves for any acts that smack of disloyalty.

Here’s the thing about house-elves, though: they have their own powerful magic, abilities that wizards and witches don’t seem to recognize or value. They have their own sense of right and wrong, which may be at odds with the families they serve. Dobby the house-elf makes his appearance at the beginning of book two to protect Harry from evil doings, an action that puts him in opposition with his master, a devoted Voldemort groupie. So every time Dobby does something to help Harry, he must punish himself for his disloyalty. At the end of the second book, Harry tricks Dobby’s cruel master into passing him an old, smelly sock, thereby freeing him.

Dobby’s kindness to Harry is repaid with deep devotion. In the end, the outcome of all the books turns on Dobby’s complete loyalty to Harry. Dobby places himself in danger in order to save the lives of, not just Harry, but five other people as well. For his pains Dobby receives a deadly wound.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…” [Philippians 2:5-7a]. The mind of Christ, the one who had access to all the glory and power of God, was the mind of a servant, a slave. The mind of Christ is shown in the actions of Harry Potter’s parents, who face Voldemort unarmed and beg for mercy, not for themselves, but for their child. The mind of Christ is illustrated in the actions of Dobby, who binds himself to Harry in a bond of love and devotion, and who offers himself and his gifts, whatever the cost. And the mind of Christ is in Harry himself, who learns from Dobby the incalculable value of certain actions, and who, in mourning the loss of Dobby, comes to understand how, at last, to empty himself.

After Dobby’s death, Harry spends a great deal of time digging Dobby’s grave, and in that time, his mind is focuses. In the end, Harry, too, walks unarmed to face Voldemort, offering no resistance, because he has come to understand that a greater power than magic, a far, far, greater power, is that of self-giving, self-sacrificing, self-emptying love.

When the Harry Potter books first became popular a fury erupted. There were some who were gravely concerned that Christian children ought not to be reading about witches and wizards. In their focus on the specifics of the content, the details of the storytelling, these critics entirely missed the power of the message. In fact, the Harry Potter series belongs in the category of books that demonstrate what it is to walk the path that Christ walked. We follow along with one who is willing to die in order that others might live. We come to love one who spends himself in order that others might be free. We are witness to the whole-heartedness of one who understands and faithfully follows his calling. It is hard to imagine any Christian walking away from these books with a faith that is weakened. My experience was just the opposite.

When we open a book and allow it to inhabit us, we are taken on a journey. The journey of Harry Potter is one that contains magic, yes, and fantasy, and a marvelous roller-coaster-ride of a story. But this journey also shows us love, and devotion, and courage, and trust. This journey leaves us eager to find that calling about which we can be whole-hearted. And then, this journey brings us home again, to the One whose whole-hearted goal was our life, and our wholeness, and our salvation. Thanks be to God. Amen.