The text is I Thessalonians 1:1-10.
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Has anyone here read or seen the Harry Potter books or movies? I imagine that many of you have. Personally, I’ve seen the movies but not read the books. If you’ve not experienced them yourself, I’m sure you’re at least aware of their existence. Just about everybody in our culture has.
Certain groups of Christians have made quite a name for themselves by claiming that the Harry Potter phenomenon is part of a satanic conspiracy to promote the practice of witchcraft among children. Here’s one juicy tidbit taken from the website exposingsatanism.org (a very serious title):
Many think it is just harmless fantasy. True it is fantasy, but it is laced with witchcraft and demonology as are most books like it…
There are many books out about Witchcraft but none so cleverly packaged like the latest. Satan is up to his old tricks again and the main focus is the children of the world. The latestcraze is a series of books by author J. K. Rowling, known as Harry Potter…
The whole purpose of these books is to desensitize readers and introduce them to the occult. What a better way to introduce tolerance and acceptance of what God calls an abomination, then in children’s books? If you can get them when they are young, then you have them for life. It’s the oldest marketing scheme there is…
Keep these books and their teachings from your child… Some teachers are reading these books to their classes. They are pagans using the school system to spread their agenda. Your tax dollars are being used to promote Witchcraft and no one is coming against it.
Even the current Pope has got in on the fun. Back when he was still a cardinal and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly known as the Inquisition), he said that the Harry Potter books’ “subtle seductions, which act unnoticed … deeply distort Christianity in the soul before it can grow properly.”
Wow. Pardon the pun, but this sure sounds like a witch-hunt to me!
So, what’s the real story? Well, as it turns out the author of the Harry Potter series (J.K. Rowling), far from being a practitioner of the dark arts, is actually a Christian. And, while I’m not one to toot our church’s horn too loudly, it also turns out that this famous author is one of our own: she’s a Presbyterian and an active member in the Church of Scotland. She says of herself, “yes, I believe. And yes, I go to the church.” But she also says, “I don’t take any responsibility for the lunatic fringes of my own religion.” Nor should she.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the plot of the Harry Potter novels, it follows the story of the title character and his friends as they pursue their magical education at the prestigious Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Along the way, their lives are continually threatened by the evil Lord Voldemort, who will stop at nothing to cheat death for himself.
Besides Harry and Voldemort, there are several other heroes and villains who come and go throughout the books. There’s one of these minor characters who everybody just loves to hate. Her name is Dolores Umbridge. Ms. Umbridge is a person who thrives on order. She likes neatness, punctuality, and good manners above all else. But underneath the surface, she is sadistic and evil. She takes a wicked delight in doling out cruel and unusual punishments on the students of Hogwart’s.
The thing about Dolores Umbridge that makes her so scary (scarier than Voldemort himself, if you ask me) is how she maintains her perfectly pressed image while being so horrible. That image of neatness, order, and propriety is nothing more than an empty shell with no substance. She reminds me of a poem by the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu:
When the Way is lost there is virtue
When virtue is lost there is humaneness
When humaneness is lost there is rightness
And when rightness is lost there is propriety.
The “Way” that Lao-Tzu mentions is more than just a path that one follows. For him, the “Way” is the supreme mystery that exists at the very heart of reality, from which all things are born. For us in the Christian tradition, we could easily say, “God”. In this poem, Lao-Tzu is describing the movement from depth to shallowness, from that which is meaningful to that which is meaningless. In the Harry Potter novels, Dolores Umbridge is a person who has completed that journey in its entirety.
Have you ever felt that way: like you’re going through the motions, being all pleasant and polite, but you wonder if there’s anything deeper than that? Do you ever wonder if there might be more to life than that? Do you ever hunger for real relationship and connection with yourself, with other people, or maybe even with something more? Do you ever wish you could find that “Way” again, as Lao-Tzu was saying, that supreme mystery at the heart of reality?
The apostle Paul, in today’s scripture reading, seems to think there is a way. If we look at it closely, we can see the drift from deep to shallow working in reverse. Paul begins with the polite and then takes it deep. The reading is taken from the very beginning of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, which is probably the oldest Christian document that we have on record. In it, Paul follows the typical format that one would find in a polite letter from the first century. When writing an important letter in that time, you wouldn’t just start right in with what you have to say. There were certain proprieties that had to be observed. First, the authors identify themselves, “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy”. Then they address their audience, “To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”. Then the author offers a greeting. Paul’s greeting, “Grace to you and peace” draws from Greek tradition, “Grace”, combined with a traditional Jewish greeting, “Peace”. So the opening of the letter goes like this: “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.”
Already, Paul is taking polite custom and transcending it in order to make a theological point. He’s trying to get his readers to look deeper into his words, past the niceties and into the truth. He identifies his addressees with God and Jesus and then uses his typical greeting to remind them of what God is doing in their lives through Christ. “Grace” is the unmerited favor (or unconditional love) of God and “peace” (harmony, wholeness, well-being) comes as a result of having grace in your life. So, on one level, Paul is simply and politely saying, “Hi there!” But on a deeper level he’s making a statement about who God is and how God works in peoples’ lives. God is the one who brings harmony and well-being through unconditional love.
The next item you usually find in any nicely written letter from the first century is some kind of thanksgiving. This isn’t usually offered to the letter’s recipients, but to the gods on behalf of the recipients. For example, it might be something as simple as, “I give thanks to the gods for your good health.” Most of the time, it was just that short. But one unique characteristic of Paul’s letters is that he takes these thanksgivings quite seriously and spends time on them in order to make a point. Once again, Paul is taking one of those little moments that people hardly notice in life and slowing it down in order to force them to pay attention to it and see the deeper spiritual meaning hidden within it.
Paul gives thanks to God for the Thessalonians themselves and recounts the story of how he brought his message to them “not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit”. In, with, and under his human words, Paul tells them, there was a divine voice, the voice of the Holy Spirit, which was also speaking to them. In the same way, Paul continues, that same Spirit was also present in them as they listened. Paul reminds them of how they “received the word with joy in the Holy Spirit”. So there they were, in the midst of a human conversation, but it wasn’t just a religious sales pitch. It was also a moment of divine encounter as the Spirit of God was present and working in those who spoke and those who listened. Once again the ordinary became extraordinary as it was infused with spiritual depth and meaning.
What was the result of this divine encounter? Paul points to the Thessalonians’ transformed lives. He talks about their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope”. He says they “became imitators of us and of the Lord”, they “became an example to all the believers”, and they welcomed traveling strangers as they came through town. Here too, the Spirit of God was present and speaking through them. Paul observes how “the word of the Lord has sounded forth” so powerfully in the silent message of their lives that there is “no need to speak about it”. The Holy Spirit transforming peoples’ lives toward greater harmony and wholeness through the unconditional love of God is a powerful sermon unto itself, without a single word ever being spoken. This reminds me of that catchphrase which is often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel always, use words when necessary.” Eugene Peterson says it well in his paraphrase of this passage: “The word has gotten around. Your lives are echoing the Master’s Word, not only in the provinces but all over the place. The news of your faith in God is out. We don’t even have to say anything anymore—you’re the message!” Leonard Peltier says the same thing in today’s second reading: “Let who you are ring out & resonate in every word & every deed… You are the message.”
Beneath the surface of our polite, boring, and everyday lives there runs a deep current of spiritual meaning. In the midst of this ordinary day a mysterious and divine presence is working extraordinary miracles of transformation. The unconditional love of God is present in your life and guiding you toward greater harmony and wholeness. It’s there and it’s free for all whether we choose to acknowledge it as such or not.
The question I have for you today is this: Are you content to be someone like Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter, who lives life on the surface, breezing by each moment with a polite perfection that is really nothing more than an empty shell? Or are you open to the kind of deep and meaningful reality that Paul and Lao-Tzu were talking about? Are you willing to be mindful of the moment that you’re in, no matter how mundane, and recognize it as the dwelling place and workshop of the Holy Spirit? If any part of you can answer “Yes” to that last question (or even wants to say “Yes”), then you’ve already begun the journey. All that’s left to do is continually come back to that momentary awareness as often as possible during the rest of your day. Keep coming back to it, as often as you think of it, every day for the rest of your life. If you forget, don’t worry, just take that instant in which you remember that you are forgetting and momentarily bring your attention back to the moment itself. Look deeper. Pay attention. The 17th century monk Brother Lawrence called this “Practicing the Presence of God”. Jean-Pierre de Caussade called it “the Sacrament of the Present Moment”. Whatever you choose to call this exercise, however you undertake it, it’s the means to reconnecting with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with that deep, mysterious presence at the heart of all existence that we call God.