Proper 12C Sermon (2007)

Proper 12 (July 24-30)
Texts: Colossians 2:6-15;
Luke 11:1-13; Gen. 18:20-32

JESUS CHRIST AND THE LIFE-GIVING HALLOWS

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” Could their be more familiar words to us as Christians? And yet, as familiar as they are, there’s one word in this prayer that’s not at all familiar in the sense that we seldom use it. When was the last time you used the word “hallow” in a sentence that wasn’t the Lord’s Prayer?

Now, there may be a segment of us here this morning for whom that question has taken on a different answer. Here’s what I mean. I looked up the word “hallow” on the Miriam Webster online dictionary. (1) It tells me its usage as a verb:

  1. to make holy or set apart for holy use
  2. to respect greatly : VENERATE

I was a little surprised that it didn’t give the Lord’s Prayer as an example of its usage.

But here’s a surprise. If you think “hallow” as a verb is rare and unusual, how about “hallow” as a noun? In this online dictionary, it tells us, as a matter of fact, that the usage as a noun is “obsolete,” meaning “a saint, a shrine, or a relic.” But here’s the really amazing part. I quote from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary.

Hallow as a noun has been rarely used for the past several hundred years and is considered obsolete except as a component in words such as Halloween and Allhallows. It is not listed in most dictionaries but has been added to this database because of the renewed interest in it sparked by the publication of J. K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

There you have it! The seventh and final book of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. You knew I was going to get there eventually, right? Today’s online dictionary for the word hallow mentions Harry Potter but not the Lord’s Prayer.

Now, I must admit that I’m going to follow suit to some extent, because I’m not going to focus on the Lord’s Prayer but I am going to talk about Harry Potter. I wrote a brief essay about some of what follows that’s on the round glass table in the narthex. That essay has a “spoiler warning.” In other words, don’t read it if you haven’t yet read the seventh book and don’t want plot details spoiled for you. I’m not giving a “spoiler warning” for this whole sermon. (I wouldn’t want a bunch of you to get up and walk out!) If you haven’t yet read the seventh book, I’m not going to give away plot details and ruin things for you. I’m going to talk about the whole Harry Potter series in general terms, because I think it can help us understand a very important idea at the heart of St. Paul’s message in our second reading from Colossians. And, obviously, I also need to use Harry Potter in general terms explained for all those who don’t anything about Harry Potter. (Are there still some of you out there who haven’t read any of the books or seen any of the movies?)

I would like to begin with one specific scene from the seventh book, one that shouldn’t give anything important away because it is something we have expected from the very first book. In the very first chapter of the first Harry Potter book, we learn that there is a terribly bad wizard who calls himself Lord Voldemort, a name so frightening that most in the wizarding world simply refer to him as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. They aren’t to hallow his name by even using it — which, if you think about it, is actually a way that you end up hallowing it or respecting it, if even in a negative fashion. Harry’s teacher, Dumbledore, teaches Harry to go ahead and use Voldemort’s name. In any case, Lord Voldemort has the whole wizarding world in terror because of his murderous ways of gaining power. Two of the people that he murders — we find out in chapter one of the first book — are Harry Potter’s mother and father, James and Lily Potter. At the age of one, Harry is an orphan, and he is sent to live with his mother’s sister and her family, a non-wizarding family. Harry grows up for ten years not even learning that he is a wizard, that he has special talents and abilities to use which will give him a special calling in life, and that he has a whole community of people with similar special gifts ready to nurture and raise him in those gifts. Harry’s aunt and uncle try to hide from him his specialness.

[A quick aside: This is why we begin the baptism liturgy, as we did for Kendra this morning, with promises from Kendra’s parents and godparents and from all us, that we have the responsibility to let Kendra know about her specialness — that with the promise of God’s Holy Spirit to her today, she has special gifts and abilities which can be nurtured in this community of people with similar gifts. She is marked with a cross on her forehead and has a special calling in which to be raised.]

But let me get to that tiny glimpse into Book 7 of the Harry Potter series. Chapter One of Book 1 begins in a place that we never see again through most of the series. Harry spends the first year of his life in a small village called Godric’s Hollow. It is the place that Lord Voldemort comes to murder him and in which his parents die trying to protect him. Harry’s aunt and uncle live in a different place and never take him to the place of his birth, either. At the end of Book 6, Harry tells Ron and Hermione that he needs to go back there, and so he finally does in Book 7. Again, I’m not going to tell you anything else around that visit that might spoil things for you, except something that you can probably guess: Harry goes to see his parents’ grave. And on the gravestone is a quote from the Bible, 1 Cor. 15:26: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

I think that J. K. Rowling has given us an epic story which also happens to be the story of us, the whole human race. Our lives tend to be about the ways in which we go about trying to defeat death. And the story of both Harry Potter and our Christian faith is, I believe, how we go about doing that. In Harry Potter, for example, that very first chapter gives us the stark contrast. Lord Voldemort is out to master death by putting it on others. His murderous ways are hideous and overtly evil. As we go through the series, we see increasingly how murder directly becomes his means of mastering death and becoming immortal. But in that first chapter, we also see a direct contrast to Lord Voldemort: namely, that Harry’s parents, especially his mother, lay down their lives in a way that defeats death. When Voldemort goes to murder Harry, the protection of his mother’s self-sacrificing love for him causes Voldemort’s curse to rebound on himself, and it would have killed him if he hadn’t taken extra evil measures to try to protect himself from dying. Harry is the Boy who Lived who finally, at age eleven, begins to be nurtured not only in his special gifts of being a wizard, but also in his extraordinary gift of having survived death because of someone else’s loving sacrifice on his behalf. The entire seven book series leads to the showdown, of course, between Harry and Voldemort. And so the central question becomes: Which way will Harry choose to defeat death? Voldemort’s way of killing others, or his mother’s paradoxical way of laying down her life for others?

But there’s something even more profound in the Harry Potter series, which I believe follows the profundity of our Christian faith and story. And that’s all the ways short of directly murdering someone in which we humans follow a path of putting off death on others as our way of trying to defeat death. What I’m talking about here is the anthropology of our forming community over against others. We divide ourselves up into family groups, into classes, into races, into gender preferences, into nations in ways that define ourselves over against others. For eons of early humanity, this was done around ritual blood sacrifice. Death was literally put off on some creature, animal or human, on an altar, and that ritual defined all kinds of things about who they were as a people, as a culture. It began with divisions like sacred and profane, holy and unholy, clean and dirty. And it went from there to define classes and subclasses of peoples and, above else, to define them into a people over against others, such as Jew vs. Gentile, or Greek vs. barbarian. As we matured as a species and tribes grew into nations, systems of law replaced ritual blood sacrifice as the center, but putting death off onto someone else still remained central through capital punishment and war.

Is this central in Harry Potter? I think so. As we go through the seven books of the series, we see all the same kinds of apparatus that define peoples over against each other. The basic division is between wizarding folk and non-wizarding folk. The latter are even called a special name, muggles, akin to Gentiles or barbarians. Wizards who grow up in muggle families have the pejorative term put on them as mudbloods. Harry’s mother is a mudblood and so Harry is a half-blood. Voldemort’s campaign of terror is based upon a kind of “ethnic cleansing,” a ridding the world of all but the pure-blood wizards and then coming to dominate the muggles, the nonwizarding folk.

And let me briefly name the other kinds of divisions J. K. Rowling, the author of Harry Potter, names for us. Within the wizarding world of England, in which everyone is trained at Hogwarts school, they are divided up into four family groups named after the four founders of Hogwarts: Godric Gryffindor, Helga Hufflepuff, Rowena Ravenclaw, and Salazar Slytherin. And the most bitter rivalry between the Hogwarts’ house is between Gryffindors and Slytherins. Harry is a Gryffindor; Voldemort, when he was in school, was a Slytherin. Outside the wizarding world of England, there are other foreign schools of wizardry that we become aware of in Book 4. And within the magical world itself, there are other categories of magical beings such as house elves, goblins, giants, and centaurs. Throughout the Harry Potter series as a whole, Rowling makes us increasingly aware of how all these ordinary divisions in the lives of wizards are capitalized upon by someone evil like Voldemort. And Harry’s great teacher, Prof. Dumbledore, speaks increasingly about their need to begin to transcend all these divisions, or there will never be peace, even if Lord Voldemort is defeated. In fact, Lord Voldemort can never be defeated to the extent that wizards don’t find healing for these divisions and come together.

I hope the parallels to our Christian faith are becoming obvious, how we learn in Jesus Christ to see the sin of all the divisions that go into our ways of trying to defeat death by putting it off on others, by defining ourselves in so many ways over against others. But let me finish, then, by rereading the last three verses of our second lesson which capture the paradox of God’s way of defeating death:

And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

Do you see? It’s the same choice as in Harry Potter: Voldemort, and all the ways he takes advantage of divisions — or the loving self-sacrifice of Harry’s mother? Satan — and all the ways in which Satan takes advantage of even our good “rulers and authorities” to divide us as human beings — or the paradoxical way in which Jesus Christ gives his life over one of the ways in which we put death off onto others. He suffers the capital punishment of the law and its legal demands, in order that he might finally lead us into God’s Kingdom, a way of politics that can help us to begin to transcend all the divisions, a kingdom built on remorse for sins and forgiveness of sins, a kingdom built on mercy and, above all, on love.

We as God’s baptized people are baptized into that kingdom, that politics, of transcending divisions so that we might have the special calling of bringing it to this sorely divided world. We come to be nurtured and fed into the gifts of that kingdom. We come to help pray it into being so that we might find ways to live it again this week: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, July 29, 2007

1. http://mw1.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hallow

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