Psalm 139:1-6 & Matthew 6:19-21
I am a huge fan of the Harry Potter books. The movies are fine, and the Broadway and Fantastic Beasts spinoffs are acceptable. But the books—the seven original Harry Potter books—are special. In many ways they are about the fight of good versus evil, but they also contain so many good metaphors. For example, there are creatures called “dementors,” that suck all positive emotions out of people. When a dementor is near you, even if you can’t see it, you feel this cold that fills you up from the inside, and all your joy is gone, and you can’t imagine ever being happy again. And if that’s not an effective description of depression, I don’t know what is. Plus, after encounters with dementors, the best medicine is chocolate!
So I have loved the books, both in print and audiobook form, and I find myself returning to them. As I drive, the familiar stories wash over me in the familiar voice of the narrator, and I find it comforting. I watched my daughter do the same thing when we moved here and she was the new kid without any friends. She re-read the books because Harry, Hermione, and Ron were always there for her.
But I had never thought of the books as sacred until a podcast called “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text.” The two hosts are Vanessa and Casper, and their goal is to read the Harry Potter books as though they were sacred, as though they were the Bible, to see what lessons they would find.
In the opening episode, Casper tells about being in divinity school “against all expectations.” He hadn’t grown up in a religious household, and he never saw himself as a minister, but somehow his search for meaning and purpose led him to divinity school. He said, “I never thought I would be sitting in a Bible study class learning how to understand this ancient text. And it was interesting, but it never felt like it was mine. I didn’t love it. And I happened to go on vacation with my family and you know, after two or three weeks with my family, I wanted to escape, and so I looked for something to read, something that would be comforting, something that would remind me of a place where I felt safe. So I downloaded Harry Potter! And I started [re]reading it, and not only did it make me feel comfortable and safe, and took me out of the situation I was in and into an imaginary world which I loved already, but the themes and the questions that were in these books were so… big! They were just as big as the Bible questions I’d just been reading, you know. The same questions of love and fear and death and even resurrection that were showing up in the Bible class were showing up in the Harry Potter text. And the difference was that the Harry Potter books felt like they were mine. I could claim them in a way that I never feel like I could claim the Bible, because this was a text I had grown up with; it’s a text I’d grown to love as a child.”
I’m going to stop there for a minute because that really convicted me. I haven’t taught my children to love the Bible stories that way. I haven’t taught them scripture in such a way that it will one day wash over them with comfort. And if I haven’t done it for my own children, I’m sure I haven’t done it for yours. We’re going to get better at that.
The other cohost on Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast is Vanessa. She tells of how her first conversation with Casper about Harry Potter was about an inconsistency in the novels that had always annoyed her. Casper responded, “Well what if we treated that as if it wasn’t an inconsistency, but it was there on purpose?” She said, “That conversation was so exciting to me because it took something shallow, like this shallow cynical thing that I’m really good at – I’m really good at being cynical and critical and ironic – and you were asking me to be sincere and optimistic about the material again. And I think that is what we’re going to do in this podcast. We are going to ask ourselves ‘what if we take this seriously? What gifts is it going to give us if we love something and we love it with rigor, and we love it with commitment?’ The thing that I love about treating a text as sacred, is that we’re giving ourselves permission through rigorous practice to really see ourselves through the text, which is a really exciting thing.”
Did you hear that? She says that treating a text as sacred means that you love it with rigor, love it with commitment, and give yourself permission to see yourself in it. If only more of us would do that with our Bible. I know that’s a strange thing to say when I’m in the middle of a series on finding God in pop culture! But my hope is not just to show you Star Trek or Harry Potter or Winnie the Pooh, but to connect them with our own sacred text, to bring our biblical story alive by seeing it through a more contemporary lens.
So back to Harry Potter. Harry is an orphan. His parents were killed by an evil wizard when he was only one year old. He was raised by his aunt and uncle, who despise him, and now he is eleven and in his first year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. For Christmas he gets a package with an unsigned note. It says “Your father left this in my possession before he died. It is time it was returned to you. Use it well.” When he opens the package he discovers something he didn’t even know existed. It is an invisibility cloak. When you put it on, you are completely invisible. He decides to try it out that night after curfew, and when he almost gets caught, he hides in a nearby room and discovers a very special mirror. (I will warn you there is a swear word that I will do my best to mute.) (Show clip from Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone, starting approximately 1:31:31.)
In the book Professor Dumbledore goes on to explain why Ron sees what he does in the mirror. Ron is the 6th son in his family, and it is difficult to excel at anything in comparison—Percy is smarter, Fred and George are funnier, Bill is cooler, etc. So the deepest desire of Ron’s heart is to excel, to be outstanding, to achieve beyond what anyone expects. And of course Harry, who hasn’t known love since he was a year old, longs for family.
Now it’s your turn. Imagine that we have here in the sanctuary the Mirror of Erised. Erised is “desire” spelled backwards. So imagine that you are looking into a magical mirror that will show you the deepest desire of your heart. Close your eyes and picture it. What does it show you? (Pause.) Now look closer at that image in your mind. What’s in your hand? What’s in the background? What didn’t you notice the first time?
I doubt any of you were truly surprised by what you saw. It may have made you sad to think about it, or it may have made you feel at peace. But you know the desires of your heart. You know what you treasure. And as our scripture says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Our scripture also says that God knows us—God knows everything about us, from our head to our toes, from our dreams to our nightmares. God knows our heart’s desire. That, of course, doesn’t mean we will get it. The Bible never promises us that we will get everything we want. That doesn’t happen even in the magical world. Harry Potter never gets his parents back except in times of great crisis, and even then he only sees their ghosts. But still, God knows, and being known is something. Professor Dumbledore is a very wise and wonderful wizard. In this same scene with Harry he goes on to give a warning. (Play rest of clip.)
“It does not do to dwell on dreams, and forget to live.” We know the desires of our hearts. We have named them. We have seen them in our mind’s eye. Now comes the hard part—to find the balance between having dreams and being possessed by them; the difference between believing in our dreams and being defined by whether or not we achieve them. And somewhere in that equation comes faith—faith that whether or not we get our heart’s desire, we have one who knows and understands, who loves us as we are and as we may become.
I used those exact words with a young woman yesterday at the Pride festival. We display a sign that says “Our church is sorry for all the hateful things done in the name of God.” Judy Kimball saw this young woman stop and stare at the sign with tears running down her face. She took a picture of it, then walked away. But a few minutes later she was back, and she just stood in front of us, crying. She couldn’t find words. She just kept looking between the sign and my face. She couldn’t take the first step, so I did. I walked out from behind the table where I’d been sitting, and I stood right in front of her. I said, “You were raised in that kind of church, weren’t you?” She nodded. “Me, too,” I said. “I know the damage it can do to your heart.” She nodded again. “I’ve been told so many things,” she whispered. I took her hand. “I know. I know what you’ve been told. It’s not true.” She stopped looking at the sign and just looked into my eyes. “There is a voice inside you that says God loves you. There is a voice inside you that tells you God loves you just as you are, that you don’t have to change to be acceptable to God. You know that, don’t you? You hear that voice?” She nodded. “I know the other voice can be louder. That other voice comes in and tries to shove this one out of the way. But that other voice is lying. You are a beloved child of God, loved exactly as you are and as you may become. Remember that, ok?” She smiled through her tears and nodded again. I pray she will remember.
I hope I was a mirror for her. She desperately needed someone to reflect back to her the desire of her heart—to be loved by God, as she is. And isn’t that the desire we all share? To be loved, as we are, without question or expectation or limit. Maybe we can be that mirror for one another. Maybe we can be that mirror for the world.