All Saints A Sermon (2020)

All Saints Day
Texts: Matthew 5:1-12;
Rev 7:9-17; 1 John 3:1-3


The Book of Revelation is one of the strangest, but also wonderful, books in the Bible. It is full of fantastical creatures and bizarre events; they are symbols for a hope-filled Christian message that proclaims the ultimate triumph of the power of love over the powers of violence and death. Can you think of a similar book written in our time with these same elements? One with fantastical creatures and events? One that proclaims the ultimate triumph of love over violence? I’d like to propose such a book, a set of books really, that has captured the imagination of millions across the earth. I’m speaking of the Harry Potter saga by J.K. Rowling.

If you aren’t familiar with the Harry Potter books, seven in all, it’s about a young wizard and his friends, who attend the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, following them through a seven year program, ages 11-17. But there is a very dramatic, life-and-death background to their school years. In a generation before them, there had arisen out of Hogwarts a terribly evil wizard who calls himself Lord Voldemort. At the height of Voldemort’s powers to terrorize the wizarding world, he received a prophecy of sorts that spoke of an infant boy who would someday defeat him. That one-year-old boy was Harry Potter. Voldemort set out to kill Harry, first murdering his parents. But then a very mysterious thing happened. When Voldemort aimed a killing curse on Harry, it rebounded back onto himself — ostensibly killing Voldemort himself, though his body was never found. Harry Potter thus becomes famous in the wizarding world as “The Boy Who Lived.”

Ten years after his parents are killed and Voldemort disappears, Harry begins his schooling at Hogwarts, and mysterious things immediately begin to happen which signal the possible return of Voldemort. Sure enough, Voldemort finally accomplishes his revival at the end of Harry’s fourth year at Hogwarts. So the last three years build toward Harry and Voldemort’s ultimate showdown, as the prophecy has foretold. All along the way the person who helps Harry get ready for this confrontation is the Headmaster of Hogwarts, Albus Dumbledore, who’s the only wizard that Voldemort fears. And here’s the fascinating aspect of Dumbledore’s tutelage of Harry: the key to it all is getting Harry to believe that love is the most powerful thing in the world.

In one of those training sessions between Dumbledore and Harry, they have the following conversation:

[Dumbledore commented,] “It will take uncommon skill and power to kill a wizard like Voldemort. . . .”

“But I haven’t got uncommon skill and power,” said Harry, before he could stop himself.

“Yes, you have,” said Dumbledore firmly. “You have a power that Voldemort has never had. You can —”

“I know!” said Harry impatiently. “I can love!” It was only with difficulty that he stopped himself adding, “Big deal!”

“Yes, Harry, you can love,” said Dumbledore, who looked as though he knew perfectly well what Harry had just refrained from saying. “Which, given everything that has happened to you, is a great and remarkable thing. You are still too young to understand how unusual you are, Harry.”

“So, when the prophecy says that I’ll have ‘power the Dark Lord knows not,’ it just means — love?” asked Harry, feeling a little let down.

“Yes — just love,” said Dumbledore. . . . “It is essential that you understand this!” said Dumbledore, standing up and striding about the room, his glittering robes swooshing in his wake; Harry had never seen him so agitated. “By attempting to kill you, Voldemort himself singled out the remarkable person who sits here in front of me, and gave him the tools for the job! It is Voldemort’s fault that you were able to see into his thoughts, his ambitions, . . . and yet, Harry, despite your privileged insight into Voldemort’s world . . . , you have never been seduced by the Dark Arts, never, even for a second, shown the slightest desire to become one of Voldemort’s followers!”

“Of course I haven’t!” said Harry indignantly. “He killed my mum and dad!”

“You are protected, in short, by your ability to love!” said Dumbledore loudly. “The only protection that can possibly work against the lure of power like Voldemort’s! In spite of all the temptation you have endured, all the suffering, you remain pure of heart. . . .”

But [Harry] understood at last what Dumbledore had been trying to tell him [about his coming showdown with Voldemort]. It was, he thought, the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high. Some people, perhaps, would say that there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumbledore knew — and so do I, thought Harry, with a rush of fierce pride, and so did my parents — that there was all the difference in the world. (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, pp. 509, 510-11, 512)

And so it is at the end of Book Seven that the showdown with Voldemort finally arrives — except there’s one huge unexpected and shocking twist. Harry finds out that in order to save his family and friends, to allow the chance for Voldemort to be defeated, he Harry must let Voldemort kill him. He must freely walk up to Voldemort and be murdered by him. He must give up his life for the sake of the others.

As he walks into the Forbidden Forest to meet Voldemort, and his own death, he remembers the Resurrection Stone which Dumbledore left him. It will not literally resurrect his loved ones, but they will come to him in some sort of spiritual presence. In Harry’s case, his closest departed loved ones are four who gave their lives trying to protect Harry: his mother and father, James and Lily Potter; his godfather, Sirius Black; and his parents’ other best friend, Remus Lupin, who had died only moments ago in the battle. I consider this scene to be a quintessential All Saints Day scene — one of gaining courage from those who have gone before us:

[Harry] closed his eyes and turned the [Resurrection] stone over in his hand three times.

He knew it had happened, because he heard slight movements around him that suggested frail bodies shifting their footing on the earthy, twig-strewn ground that marked the outer edge of the forest. He opened his eyes and looked around.

They were neither ghost nor truly flesh, he could see that. . . . Less substantial than living bodies, but much more than ghosts, they moved toward him, and on each face, there was the same loving smile.

James [Potter] was exactly the same height as Harry. He was wearing the clothes in which he had died, and his hair was untidy and ruffled, and his glasses were a little lopsided. . . .

Sirius [Black] was tall and handsome, and younger by far than Harry had seen him in life. He loped with an easy grace, his hands in his pockets and a grin on his face.

[Remus] Lupin was younger too, and much less shabby, and his hair was thicker and darker. He looked happy to be back in this familiar place, scene of so many adolescent wanderings.

[His mother’s] smile was widest of all. She pushed her long hair back as she drew close to him, and her green eyes, so like his, searched his face hungrily, as though she would never be able to look at him enough.

“You’ve been so brave.”

He could not speak. His eyes feasted on her, and he thought that he would like to stand and look at her forever, and that would be enough.

“You are nearly there,” said [his father]. “Very close. We are . . . so proud of you.”

“Does it hurt?” The childish question had fallen from Harry’s lips before he could stop it.

“Dying? Not at all,” said Sirius. “Quicker and easier than falling asleep.”

“And he will want it to be quick. He wants it over,” said Lupin.

“I didn’t want you to die,” Harry said. These words came without his volition. “Any of you. I’m sorry —”

He addressed Lupin more than any of them, beseeching him.

“— right after you’d had your son . . . Remus, I’m sorry —“

“I am sorry too,” said Lupin. “Sorry I will never know [my son] . . . but he will know why I died and I hope he will understand. I was trying to make a world in which he could live a happier life.”

A chilly breeze that seemed to emanate from the heart of the forest lifted the hair at Harry’s brow. He knew that they would not tell him to go, that it would have to be his decision.

“You’ll stay with me?”

“Until the very end,” said [his father].

“They won’t be able to see you?” asked Harry.

“We are part of you,” said Sirius. “Invisible to anyone else.”

Harry looked at his mother. “Stay close to me,” he said quietly.

And he set off. . . . Harry clutched the [Invisibility] Cloak tightly around him in the darkness, traveling deeper and deeper into the forest, with no idea where exactly Voldemort was, but sure that he would find him. Beside him, making scarcely a sound, walked James, Sirius, Lupin, and Lily, and their presence was his courage . . . . (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, pp. 698-700)

In this scene, Harry gathers courage from his beloved departed saints in order to face the powers of evil that remain in the world. I believe this is what All Saints Day is about: remembering that God keeps our departed loved ones close to us as part of a vast communion of saints who give us strength to face the evils of our time. And we do so relying first and foremost on the power of love, even in the face of the violent powers arrayed against us. It is the same power of love that took Jesus to a violent death on the cross, trusting in God’s power of love, which is the power of life itself . . . the power of Resurrection.

In two days is the most important Election Day in our lifetime. Voting is itself a quintessential act of nonviolent resistance to the powers that reflect the opposite values of those in the Beatitudes. We stand against those who see themselves as blessed by holding onto wealth and political power which neglects the poor in spirit and even creates them through their oppressive use of power.

So I’d like to close remembering a speech Oprah Winfrey gave two years ago this week, in which she basically invoked the Communion of Saints:

She told the story of Otis Moss, Sr., who walked 18 miles for the right to vote.

She quoted Maya Angelou, who said, “I walk into the poll as one and stand as ten thousand.”

And she concluded: “I’m here today because of the men and because of the women who were lynched, who were humiliated, who were discriminated against, who were suppressed, who were repressed, and oppressed for the right for the equality at the polls. And I want you to know that their blood has seeped into my DNA, and I refuse to let their sacrifices be in vane.”

As we have been voting for several weeks and for those yet to vote, we stand with the many saints before us who have struggled to make all of us equal in the voting booths. We stand together for the common good, remembering especially the poor and the poor in spirit. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer,
Racine, WI, November 1, 2020

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