Back in 2007 I preached a series on “the gospel and Harry Potter.” This series coincided with a huge cultural moment among HP fans: the release of the seventh book and the fifth film. Before I left for Collegeville, and in honor of the final chapter of the saga hitting theaters, I threw them up here on the blog. Enjoy…
A couple of years ago I was walking in our neighborhood with Caroline who was about 3 years old at the time, when a woman on a bicycle rode by and waved, “Hi Caroline!” It’s a friendly neighborhood; nothing unusual about that, except that I had no idea who the woman was.
Who is this? I thought. She knows my daughter, but I don’t recognize her at all!
I turned to Caroline to find out who she was. What I said was, “Caroline, how does she know you?” Which turns out to be a stupid question to ask a toddler who is in that very self-centered stage of development. Toddlers, it seems, go through a period where they think they are the center of the universe. So she looked at me like I was the densest person on earth and didn’t say a word, but her expression said clearly, “Mommy. Everyone knows me.”
(It turned out to be the neighbor of her day-care provider, who also lives down the street from us.)
It’s true! In her world, not just as a toddler but as a preacher’s kid, she is used to people knowing who she is, even if she can’t quite place who they are. Everyone knows Caroline, whether she likes it or not. I think if you shared the words of God to Jeremiah to a toddler, “Before you were even born I knew you… I knew you,” I have a feeling the response would be the toddler equivalent of, “Well, duh.”
Now, for those of us, however, who are at a different stage of development, who know we are not the center of the universe, it is remarkable, isn’t it, that God knows us. God knows each and every one of us. Think about the vastness of the universe, this ever-expanding cosmos, and this tiny planet earth in an obscure corner of a medium-to-large sized galaxy. Now think about the God who made all that, looking at each person who has ever walked this planet and saying, “Knew that one. Yep, knew that one too. And that one.” It’s a remarkable thing, assuming we’re not too old and cynical and enlightened to experience awe. God knows you.
Our protagonist in this series, young Harry Potter, is someone who was going about his life, minding his own business, until one day he came to discover that he was known in a way he could never have imagined. When Harry Potter is found at age 11, living with his relatives the Dursleys, he finds out that not only is he a wizard, which is strange enough, but he is one of the most famous children ever to have lived in the wizarding world—the only one to have survived an attack by the dark wizard Voldemort. Harry is the one they call “The Boy Who Lived.”
And he knows nothing of this. And Hagrid, who has been sent to fetch Harry, is outraged.
How can you not know who you are? he roars. “How can you not know what you are? …Harry Potter, not knowing his own story!” (Sorcerer’s Stone, p. 50 and 53)
He is the boy who lived! He is the one who has given people hope that maybe Voldemort, who has terrorized so many people and spread fear and horror, just might have a weakness. Maybe evil won’t have the last word, they think, because someone lived. Harry Potter lived.
And Harry has no clue of any of this.
And what’s more, he doesn’t want the job. He doesn’t want to be the object of all this attention. It takes him a long time to come to terms with who he is… (six books and counting). When at the age of 15 he is asked to teach some of his fellow students some techniques so that they can defend themselves against Voldemort—which he has done successfully several times over the series—he comes up with every excuse not to do it. We’ll get in trouble, I don’t know enough—I just got lucky, I’m not a good teacher, I’m too young, and so on (from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix).
It’s not so different, is it, from Jeremiah? Jeremiah, who is visited by the spirit of God who says, “I know you. I have always known you, even when you didn’t know me. And you will be a prophet to the nations; I have appointed you.” And Jeremiah says, “Excuse me? A prophet? There must be some mistake.”
And God says, “No mistake. You’re the one.”
We know that the Bible is full of people who reacted as Jeremiah did—as Harry did. “I’m a what? You want me to what?” I was reminded of this just this week at a presbytery meeting where we received candidates for ordination, many of whom said, “Yeah, I heard the call from God, and I ran the other way as long as I could.” I think we tell ourselves it’s modesty. The God of heaven and earth has a job for me to do? The God of the whole universe has appointed me for special work? Little old me?
It looks like modesty, but it can also be woefully faithless. When the God of the universe comes calling, nudging, pleading, saying “You’re my child. I love you. I always have. And I have a call for you. I’ve tailored it just for you.” And then we go about business as usual? Woe to us.
And business as usual doesn’t work anyway, because as Jeremiah will tell you, God can be very persistent and doesn’t easily take no for an answer.
I know of no better illustration of this than a scene from the first Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, when Harry first receives his invitation to Hogwarts School of Wizardry (which comes via owl post). His aunt and uncle Dursley, who are vile people who keep Harry in a cupboard underneath the stairs, are resistant to the idea, to say the least. Take a look.
[View movie clip, in which the letters come to Harry faster and faster, despite Uncle Vernon’s best efforts to keep them away from Harry, including burning the letters and sealing the mailbox]
You may have noticed how the invitation is worded:
The Cupboard under the Stairs
4 Privet Drive… etc.
The invitation comes from someone who doesn’t just know Harry, but knows exactly where he is in time and space.
Uncle Vernon tries every trick in the book to keep those letters out, but to no avail. He learns that post does too come on Sunday, and Monday, and Tuesday, and for however long it takes before the message gets through. The letters keep coming and coming and coming, and each is addressed just to Harry, exactly where he is.
I wonder how your letters from God would be addressed to you.
It could be your address is crystal clear to everyone:
But surely there are others who may be living at a different address right now, an address only God knows.
Dead End Job, Feeling Empty But Unable to See a Way Out
Mary Alice Thompson
Being Eaten Alive by Depression but Terrified to Say Anything to Anyone
Wondering Whether God Cares, or Even Exists
Crushed under the Weight of Too Much Busyness
Before we were formed in our mother’s womb, God knew us. God knows where we are. God wants more than anything to transform our lives with the power of Jesus Christ. That’s the message. So why do we let other people nail 2x4s over the mail slot? Why do we believe what the world tells us about ourselves? If you’re pretty, or thin, or white, or rich, or young, or fast, or smart, then you matter.
Why do we resist the truth, that we are precious just as we are? Why do we proclaim in our theology that there is nothing we need to do to deserve God’s love, then work ourselves to the bone to be worthy? Why do we resist grace?
I’ve said it before from this pulpit: “All human nature vigorously resists grace, because grace changes us and change is painful.” (Flannery O’Connor, quoted by Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast, p. 121)
We resist it.
We are so resistant to grace that we will go so far as to splinch ourselves. (Now here is a great wizarding term! There is a way of getting around in the wizarding world called Apparating, where a person disappears one place and arrives, POP!, in another. The trouble is, if you don’t concentrate while in transit, you might arrive without an eyebrow, or an elbow, or an index finger. That’s splinching.)
I think many of us are victims of our own spiritual splinching. We’re so willing to believe what the world says about us—we’re so eager to get away from God and from our God-given selves—that we will leave pieces of ourselves behind. We want to be liked, we want to get along, we want to feel safe, we want a lot of shiny toys, we want to do things our own way. We want to be free to pursue our goals, our desires, our wants, our needs.
The bumper sticker theology here would be that God is all we need, that if we just give our lives to God that everything will be smooth sailing, tra-la-la. We know that’s not true.
However, a life in God does serve to deepen our goals, transform our desires, clarify our wants, and ground our needs.
Imagine that, roars Hagrid. Harry Potter doesn’t even know his own story. He doesn’t even know who he is, how important he is, how beloved he is.
Do you know your story? Do you know who you really are?
“Before I formed you, I knew you. I have appointed you for nourishing work. And I will provide what you need.” That’s the message.
How many letters will it take for the message to get through?