Sermon: Harry Potter and the Scandal of the Cross

Sermon for Pentecost 17B
September 16, 2018
Mark 8:27-38: Caesarea Philippi

Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Good morning! It’s wonderful to be back with you! Although the youth and I had a great time at Hammonasset last week, I really missed getting to be part of Rally Day…including the children’s-book-themed worship!

So I hope you can forgive me, but after helping to put that service together and then not getting to celebrate it with you, I have all kinds of pent-up children’s-book metaphors that I need to get out.

This is my way of telling you that I’m going to be using Harry Potter to preach the gospel today.

If you have not read Harry Potter…what are you waiting for?! You’ve had twenty years!  And if your comeback to not having read them is “But I’ve seen the movies,” well: I know as your pastor and a Christian I am not supposed to judge you, but I am only human, people.

“Platform 9 3/4” at King Cross Station, London, because the WHOLE WORLD HAS READ HARRY POTTER, SO WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR??? Wikimedia Commons, by Oxyman.

I’m sorry to tell you people with this pitiable hole in your literary experience that this sermon contains spoilers, and so if you were, for some strange reason, saving the experience, please break out your earplugs and allow your attention to wander freely for a few moments.

Even if you have not read the books (or seen the movies), you probably still know that the Harry Potter series involves an epic battle between good and evil, set in a world where magic is real. Harry is the protagonist, and his shadowy nemesis is Voldemort, a wizard who rose to wield such immense and terrible power that it seemed like no one could stop him or his band of followers, the Death Eaters. The mysterious thing that finally broke Voldemort’s power was when, in an attempt to overturn a prophecy predicting that a baby of Harry’s description would be the one who could defeat him, Voldemort cast a curse to kill the infant Harry. For reasons no one could explain, the curse rebounded and blasted Voldemort into nothingness.

But…not into quite as much nothingness as we had hoped.

It turned out that Voldemort had a profound fear of death and the humiliating defeat that it represented. And so, in the years before his rise to power, he took a precaution: he broke his soul into seven pieces, and hid the pieces inside certain objects. As long as even one of those objects—called Horcruxes—was intact, Voldemort could not be defeated.

The process of creating a Horcrux is a terrible one. Only one thing splits the human soul as the curse requires, and so the making of each Horcrux was accompanied by murder.

Harry comes to learn about Horcruxes, and the final part of the series involves an arduous quest to identify, track down, and destroy each of them. The quest comes down to the wire as the two halves of the wizarding world prepare for a final battle against one another. Halfway through the battle, even as the toll has already mounted tragically high, Harry comes to understand that he himself must die in order to make Voldemort’s end possible.

And he does.

Throughout his journey, we discover a series of eerie similarities between Harry and Voldemort: they both grew up as unloved orphans; they came from similar backgrounds; they even looked something alike. But in the end, death was the stark difference that set them apart: Harry was willing to die for the sake of the mission he believed in. For Voldemort, the only mission he believed it at all was never dying.

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

These are not easy words for grown-ups to understand, which is perhaps why we leave it to children’s books.

“For those who want to save their life will lose it.” Voldemort wanted nothing else in the world more than to feel safe—and to him, who had never been loved or wanted, whose nature and nurture were both stacked against him, safety could only be found in one thing: never dying.

And in his quest to find that immortality, that invulnerability, Voldemort loses the very thing that gives life meaning. It is unclear whether Voldemort ever had the ability to feel compassion or love for other people, but after the creation of the Horcruxes, after mutilating his soul in the pursuit of the goal he had chosen to place above all others, there is no chance for redemption. Voldemort fractured his soul so deeply that he lost the ability to exercise the one thing that could repair it: remorse.

He cannot feel remorse, because he does not love. Voldemort doesn’t have friends; he has servants, and he will break even the most important of those bonds the moment it becomes clear that the relationship undermines his singular goal of eternal life. And at the very end of the seventh book, Voldemort stands utterly alone and friendless.

The desire to save your life, to secure it, can result in you losing it. I don’t believe that there are any of us in this sanctuary who would seek invulnerability with the single-minded, cold calculation of Voldemort…but as inhuman as he seems, there’s also a part of Voldemort that is frighteningly relatable. The reason he wants to be invulnerable is because he is, at the very core, afraid.

In Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly, she lists, rapid-fire, a list of never-enoughs, several of which have a familiar ring to my heart: never good enough, never perfect enough, never powerful enough, never successful enough, never smart enough, never certain enough, never safe enough, never extraordinary enough. What is your never-enough? And what would you give to finally feel like you’d conquered it?

While none of us are the horrifying monster that Voldemort becomes, we, too, are vulnerable to those hairline fractures of the soul whenever we choose to tend to our never-enough instead of to the gospel of self-giving love that Jesus lived and preached and was. And here’s the thing about never-enoughs: they never are enough. They are bottomless needs. And they can consume us.

“Those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Harry does live. Oh, he dies as well. It’s a bit complicated, and I really can’t be expected to explain the whole seven-book series to you in one sermon, so seriously, people, just read the books.

But here’s the thing: as Harry walks toward his death, he is accompanied by a magical echo of four dead loved ones: his parents, his godfather, and his favorite teacher. He goes knowing that he is loved and supported, and that the cause for which he is giving his life is worthy and within reach. In going to the darkest, most dangerous place that he has ever been called to go, Harry finds himself surrounded by love, acceptance, and peace.

This is the the heart of the gospel; this is the cross. This is what Jesus tells us when he speaks openly to his disciples about suffering, about being rejected, about dying and rising again: the place where we see God most clearly is when God hangs dying on the cross, and we see there the power of God poured out in love that is willing to die for us.

The God that call us into mission is a God who meets us when it looks like all hope is lost, all races are run, and the last chance has ended. The place where God works resurrection is when the never-enoughs have won.

This God, this all-powerful God who chose to become vulnerable, even as vulnerable as Jesus was on the cross, is the same God who calls us and equips us to deny ourselves and take up our cross. To stop choosing to focus on the never-enoughs that demand our loyalty, and remind ourselves not only who we are, but whose we are.

We have been claimed in baptism by the God who sets us free from the powers that play on our fears and our never-enoughs, and even from death itself. We have been wrapped, in baptism, in Jesus’ own love, and we’ve been sealed by the sign of the cross, the sign of that power-made-perfect-in-weakness, and we’ve been called to be People-Who-Live believing so deeply in that truth that we’re willing to give everything for it, up to and including our lives.

And in ways that we can never expect or predict, even when Jesus is standing there in the gospel telling us that it’s so, that very gift of the Spirit, that faith, that willingness to lose our lives is what saves them after all.



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