Proper 9B Sermon (2003)

Proper 9 (July 3-9)
Texts: 2 Cor. 12:2-10;
Mark 6:1-13; Ez. 2:1-5


I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows — was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:2-10)

Our family is into the Harry Potter phenomena big-time. But I’ve never yet mentioned it from the pulpit. This morning that will change in a big way, as I hope to try to shed light on our Second Lesson through the latest of the Harry Potter books, the fifth in the series.

Do you know about these books at all? They are listed as children’s books, and the New York Times lists the latest book as number one in that category since its debut two weeks ago yesterday. The two largest booksellers, and Barnes and Noble, both list Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix [holding it up in the pulpit] as the number one selling book in all categories since the first minute of its debut. It sold five million copies on the first day!

You might be familiar with this series of books and movies from the controversy among Christians (this is the fifth book, and so far they have made movies from the first two books). Some Christians have asked, ‘Are these books O.K. to read, since they are about witchcraft and wizardry?’ Well, first of all, I would answer that they really aren’t about witchcraft and wizardry. The author, J. K. Rowling, readily admits that she doesn’t believe in the witchcraft and wizardry herself. They are merely an imaginative way into doing what great stories do best: namely, tell us about ourselves as human beings. I am in awe of her witty and intricately detailed sense of imagination. And I think that the Harry Potter books not only do a wonderful job of talking about adolescents growing up in a messy, complicated world, but they also do so with what I consider Christian sensibilities and insight — quite the opposite of what many Christians are trying to portray of these books.

In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb this morning and say that this fifth book in the series helps us to understand our very difficult reading from St. Paul this morning. What is all Paul’s talk about boasting, not in colorful visions of heaven, but of boasting in the power of weakness? As our family has digested this Harry Potter book in its first two weeks, I’m struck by how its themes very much resonate with our Second Reading.

This is going to be a bit tricky. I need to tell some of the story without giving too many important details for those who haven’t had time yet to finish all 870 pages. But I need to also tell enough so that folks who haven’t read any of these books, or seen the movies, might glean enough of the story to understand how it might help with hearing what St. Paul is talking about with power in weakness.

So let’s begin with an overview. Harry Potter is “The Boy who Lived.” In the first book, we find out that Harry has been raised by his aunt (his mother’s sister) and uncle, because Harry’s mother and father were killed when he was one year old. Harry’s aunt and uncle are a non-wizarding family who are afraid of it and so they lie. They tell Harry that his parents were killed in a car crash. But on Harry’s eleventh birthday, as he receives his letter of invitation to attend the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, we begin to find out the truth. Harry is famous in the wizarding world as the Boy Who Lived. There had been a Dark Lord wizard at the height of his powers who had murdered Harry’s mother and father. But when that Dark Lord, named Lord Voldemort, tried to kill the one year old Harry, his murderous curse rebounded back on himself, leaving only a lightning shaped scar on Harry’s forehead, while nearly killing Lord Voldemort. As Harry re-enters the wizarding world to attend Hogwarts School at age eleven, his lightning scar identifies him as the one who mysteriously survived the curse that had killed his parents, and so many others, and had reduced the Dark Lord himself to something less than human, knocking him from his terrifying reign. Harry Potter is the Boy who Lived.

We see in the first book a glimpse of the mystery — namely, that what I see as Christian sensibilities are prominent right from the start. Harry isn’t resurrected, nor portrayed as a Christ figure, but he does bear the scar of having mysteriously survived murder. And by the end of the first book, we begin to discover why: Harry’s mother, in sacrificing herself to protect Harry, leaves the powerful protection of her love on Harry. It is through the power of love that Harry is the Boy who Lived.

It is in this fifth book [holding it up], though, that these themes really develop much further. We see, first of all, the kind of contrast St. Paul makes between the arrogance of boasting and compassion in suffering, or apparent weakness. Through a bit of magic, Harry is able to observe his parents at the same age that he is now, fifteen. As students at Hogwarts, Harry sees that his father James fancied his mother Lilly; but she dislikes him back then because he is an arrogant bully. James Potter is the best at nearly everything in school and likes to show off, especially at the expense of some of the lesser students. Harry watches his father mercilessly teasing one of the other boys, and his mother severely chiding him for it. Her heart is clearly for those who suffer at the hands of others. Harry has known this about his mother but is deeply troubled by his immature, braggart father. His father is the best at everything, a powerful leader among his fellow students, but one who, at the age of fifteen, seems to abuse his power. How did his father turn it around? And why does someone like Voldemort, with so much ability, get locked into using his power for evil? Harry experiences that good and evil are not so clear as we might like to think.

St. Paul is wrestling with similar dynamics. When does ability turn into a force for good? There were apparently people at Corinth who tried to compete with Paul in matters of religion. They could brag about dramatic religious experiences and vie for authority with Paul. Does Paul respond with his own credentials? Most scholars believe that the person whose vision of being elevated to the third heaven is St. Paul himself. In other words, he talks about himself in the third person to soften his mild boasting. He is saying, in essence, “If I wanted to get caught up in a battle of boasts about things religious, I could beat you all. But that’s not what our faith is about! It’s about faith in the power of Jesus Christ, a power which appears weak to the world.” St. Paul even interprets a point of pain in his own life as the opportunity to experience real power, power in weakness, because he is then open and empowered by Christ’s compassionate life. There is a real power at work in this world, and it doesn’t come through human competence. Paul goes from the practical matter of bragging, to the heart of the Good News of grace, that God’s love in Jesus Christ is the true power of goodness in this world.

So, I think, does this fifth Harry Potter book. From Harry’s anguishing about his father’s youthful arrogance, the story climaxes with the matter of what truly counts for power in this world. Albus Dumbledore is the last name I’ll throw at you today. He is the Headmaster of Harry’s school and the great good wizard of the age. Dumbledore is the only one that the Dark Lord has ever feared. And, in this fifth book, we finally see Dumbledore and Voldemort clash face-to-face — with Harry watching. Without giving away crucial details, let me relate what I think is the basic point, one that helps us with what St. Paul is talking about.

Lord Voldemort — fifteen years since his demise trying to kill Harry — has finally risen to terrible power once again. Harry and several of his classmates get into some trouble at the Ministry of Magic, the wizarding seat of government. They have gone to try to save a friend of Harry’s. And they clash with supporters of Voldemort in the Department of Mysteries, a wing of the building with, fittingly, many mysterious doors and rooms. Tragically, trying to save a friend, Harry witnesses the death of a friend.

But, in the end, it comes to a showdown between the two great wizards themselves, Dumbledore and Voldemort. The Dark Lord has no reservations at all about firing death curses at Dumbledore, who dodges and deflects them. It is obvious to Voldemort, though, that Dumbledore is using curses meant to stop Voldemort but not to kill him — to which Voldemort finally says, “You do not seek to kill me, Dumbledore? Above such brutality, are you?” Dumbledore’s reply intimates that there are some things worse than death, anyway, which Voldemort decries as ridiculous: “There is nothing worse than death, Dumbledore!” he snarls.

“You are quite wrong,” says Dumbledore, “Indeed, your failure to understand that there are things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness.” Something worse than death? What could that be? I think the answer lies in their methods of battle itself. The thing worse than death is working to inflict it on someone else. For all of Voldemort’s great powers, he uses them to wield death upon others. That, in the end, is worse than dying oneself — a matter which Voldemort absolutely cannot see. For he cannot see that those powers of death are not the ultimate powers in this universe, in the first place.

What is the ultimate power? At the climax of the battle between Dumbledore and Voldemort, which Dumbledore is winning, Voldemort makes one last ditch effort to prevail: he possesses Harry and dares Dumbledore to kill him. Harry, in terrible pain at being possessed by the Dark Lord, has his heart fill not with hatred but with compassion for the friend he has seen die minutes before — at which point Voldemort flees the scene to presumably fight again another day.

An hour later, as Dumbledore is trying to help Harry understand what had just happened, he shocks Harry by telling him that he, Harry, has powers more powerful than the Dark Lord. Harry can’t believe it. “I haven’t any powers [Voldemort] hasn’t got,” says Harry, “I couldn’t fight the way he did tonight, I can’t possess people or — or kill them –”

“There is a room in the Department of Mysteries,” interrupts Dumbledore, “that is kept locked at all times. It contains a force that is at once more wonderful and more terrible than death, than human intelligence, than forces of nature. It is also, perhaps, the most mysterious of the many subjects for study that reside there [in the Department of Mysteries]. It is the power held within that room that you possess in such quantities and which Voldemort has not at all. That power took you to save [your friend] tonight. That power also saved you from possession by Voldemort, because he could not bear to reside in a body so full of the force he detests. In the end, it … was your heart that saved you.”

A compassion that appears as weakness to this world fascinated by the powers of death. Isn’t that the mystery of the Christian faith that St. Paul is trying to convey to us in 2 Cor. 12? That there is a force more powerful in this world than the powers of great warriors and armies to wield death, a power which looks like weakness to the world? The power of God’s love to save us precisely by taking on death and exposing it as something not to fear? At the cross of Jesus Christ, God clashes with Satan and appears to lose. But that’s where Satan is duped, because he doesn’t understand the true power of this world, namely, the power of God’s love and compassion to give life even in the face of death. It is the power not to transport us into some upper level of heaven, but the power to bring heaven here to this earth, to reside in our hearts as God’s love for the world. It is a power for which we so radically pray, every time we pray, “Our Father who art in heaven, Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We need God’s power of life and love to come to this world and transform our powers of hatred and death.

As we celebrate the blessings of living in this great nation of ours on this July 4th holiday weekend, let me end with a few poignant questions. Do we pray that Lord’s Prayer once again this morning and mean it? In others words, despite our great military might as a nation, do we put our ultimate faith in the power of God’s love and compassion, a power which resides in the heavenly Department of Mysteries but which also comes into this world in the heart of Jesus? And through his heart into yours and mine? Is divine compassion the power that finally defeats all the powers of Satan, that is, all the worldly powers that cooperate in wielding death — a fate worse than death? What would it mean to truly live in faith to the power of God’s compassion, rather than enthralled with the power to inflict more death on our enemies? What kind of politics does such a faith entail? What does it really mean to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”?

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Our Savior’s Lutheran,
Racine, WI, July 6, 2003

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