In this morning’s gospel reading (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52), Jesus asks his disciples if they understood his teaching. That prompted me to consider giving you a reading comprehension test on the gospel, or perhaps all three readings. If that makes you nervous, relax. I did not want to grade the exams nor embarrass any who scored poorly. Truth be told, I strongly suspect the disciples overstated their understanding as well.
On one level, most of us can easily understand the gospel. The Kingdom of Heaven is like an incredibly valuable treasure or pearl beyond price that, like yeast or a rapidly growing tree, spreads in an almost unstoppable manner.
On a deeper level, the gospel can easily seem more obtuse. Some of you will have noticed that I mixed metaphors in explaining how to understand the gospel easily. I conflated the two sets of metaphors that Jesus used to describe two different aspects of the Kingdom. The Kingdom is both more precious than anything else is and highly contagious. This is the opposite of our normal expectations. Usually, scarcity drives prices up while contagion cheapens it or even signifies something bad like the flu or panic.
So, do you understand today’s gospel reading?
Before you reply with an answer that you may come to regret, remember that the gospel reading ends with Jesus commenting that people trained for the Kingdom of Heaven will bring what is old and what is new out of their treasure. That, to say the least, sounds difficult.
The old, quite simply, is to love God and our neighbor. Love is the only thing of which I am aware that is beyond price and yet which is unlimited in supply and amazingly contagious. The new, a task of great complexity, is figuring out what those two commands mean each day.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has attracted renewed attention the last couple of weeks with the release of the final movie in the series, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2.” The movie set the record for the largest ticket sales on the opening weekend of any movie.
Sadly, Pope Benedict, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, along with a host of other Christian voices, condemned Harry Potter as unchristian or worse. Less well known is that in October 2007 Rowling publicly stated that Christianity inspired the series and identified herself as a Christian, a member of the Scottish Episcopal Church.
To digress briefly, the Scottish Episcopal Church, like our Episcopal Church, is part of the Anglican Communion. The American Church owes a debt of gratitude to the Scottish Episcopal Church. Following the American Revolution, we had no bishops. Nobody could be confirmed nor could we ordain new clergy. For different reasons, the Scots were also on the outs with the Church of England and consequently were willing to assist us by ordaining our first three bishops.
The controversy over Harry Potter has two roots. First, some people think that watching fantasy can seduce a person into abandoning God for evil. People who feel that way should read more of the Bible. The Bible contains many of what sailors kindly call sea stories. These include Noah and the ark, Jonah and the fish, and the beast that would rule the world, stories that may have a moral, may have once had a historical basis, but that are now pure fiction. These critics should also pay close attention to this morning’s second lesson (Romans 8:26-39): Nothing – “not death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation” – can separate us from God. Rowling’s Potter series is the latest in a long line of popular Christian allegories and fantasies that includes C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series.
Second, too often people, perhaps even some of us on occasion, take religious language literally rather than symbolically. That makes appreciating the extensive use of Christian symbolism and themes in Harry Potter difficult if not impossible. Consider a few examples:
· Unicorns, white stags, and red lions – all featured in Harry Potter – are Christian symbols for the Christ.
· The evil house at Hogwarts, the school for wizards, is Slytherin, an allusion to the ancient metaphor of the snake as the embodiment of evil.
· Professor Dumbledore, Harry’s mentor and protector, who like a phoenix rises from the dead, is another Christ figure.
· Inclusivity, all are welcome, reaches a new level in the films as Potter always treats house-elves, werewolves, giants, and even Muggles with equal respect and dignity.
· Harry Potter usually makes the right choice, consistently tends to act out of love, and eventually triumphs through the power of love. He repeatedly dies a near death only to “rise from the dead.” The scar on his forehead is evocative of our mark as Christians: Holy Baptism. In short, Potter is a Christ-figure, empowered by the blood of his mother.
Mircea Eliade, the highly respected scholar of myth and religion, suggested in his classic work, The Sacred and the Profane, that novels and other literary art forms fill a spiritual hunger in people. Novels provide us a vehicle for imagining the spiritual, a set of images for talking about the spiritual, and suggest that perhaps the spiritual is real. As champion athletes, great artists, top business executives, and other people who excel have discovered, imagining success significantly enhances a person’s ability to achieve success. In other words, watching or reading Harry Potter can help to form us as better Christians, inspiring us with confidence that love does prevail and that we can live lives that are more loving.
As Jesus asked his disciples, do you understand? Amen.