Stranger Things - the show so nice we have to write a sermon about this season twice. Well, the truth is it’ll be like twenty years before we get another season, so we have to milk it while it’s here. Just kidding - but really.
Part 2 dropped, and it was pretty good. Some stereotypically weird choices from the Duffers, but the exploration of this world continues to be some of my favorite stuff. And one of my favorite characters that they have ever explored is the one and only Dr. Brenner. Dr. Brenner and Eleven have a fascinating relationship, and it was one of the cinching points of this season. And it ends up being a moment of natural character evolution for El and who she continues to become. And, uh, I’m not sure I like who she’s becoming.
So… in this video, I want to break down the big moment for El and Brenner and what it means for the show's future, and for what we can get out of it as human beings. Let’s talk about it.
Welcome to Checkpoint Church - where nerds, geeks, and gamers come together to talk about faith, games, and an okay ending to an excellent season of online television. I’m your Nerd Pastor Nate. If you like these weekly deep-dives, be sure to sub and hit that bell to find out when our next one drops.
Matthew 18:15-22 (NRSVue)
“If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If you are listened to, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If that person refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church, and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if my brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
Let’s start this one out with a big ol’ spoiler warning. There’s no way to talk about the events of this sermon without spoiling one of this season's most significant plot points.
So, you should all be somewhat familiar with Stranger Things after our video a few weeks ago, but I’ll give a quick primer on the things related to this conversation.
Stranger Things is a Netflix original TV show that centers around the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, and several families within it.
Throughout the seasons, we see this show get absolutely plagued with one tragedy after another, and all of them are seemingly centered around the same location - Dr. Brenner’s research lab.
While the big mystery of the show has always been *why* Brenner is doing this, the question has finally seemingly been answered in this season.
Throughout the seasons, we discover Eleven is the Eleventh test subject at Brenner’s research lab.
Actually, can we just, for a quick second, talk about something so eerie to me. The Duffer Brothers are from Durham, NC, and I have lived in NC my whole life… one of the staples of our state is Brenner’s Children Hospital. This has bothered me since Season One, and I just had to get it off my chest. What did the children’s hospital do to you, Duffers?
Back to Eleven.
Eleven is a test subject for a weird para-military experiment on telekinesis, multiversal connection, and the morphogenetic field capable of being explored by espers like Eleven.
Yeah, they never use those words, but that’s what’s going on there btw. For anyone not aware of Rupert Sheldrake’s theories. Which is probably most people.
The question plaguing the show has always been why Brenner is doing this? Is he a bad person? Is he military? Is he nationalistic? Is he sadistic?
I mean, he’s experimenting on children and has them call him Papa, so regardless of anything, he is creepy.
The excuse has always been that Brenner is doing this research out of his compassion for these children. It just so happened to coincide with the American government's obsession with keeping tabs on Russia during the cold war era.
But this season reveals the truth. Brenner was looking for someone.
We meet the big bad of the entire show this season - Vecna. Vecna is just a cute name from the Dungeons and Dragons world - which I recently learned was named after Gary Gygax’s fascination with an author with the last name Vance, hence Vecna.
Vecna is actually One, and One is actually Henry Creel.
As far as we know, Henry Creel is the origin of these morphogenetic powers. Something happens along the way, and Henry grows up and either starts working for Brenner or is enslaved by Brenner as an aide - the latter of which is more likely.
After befriending an impressionable Eleven, Henry gets the inhibition chip removed from his neck and gains access to his powers once more. He then goes on an absolute rampage, killing all of the other espers in the facility.
Except for Eleven. When the ultra-powerful Eleven stumbles on Henry, who she thought was her friend, committing these acts, she goes beast mode and traps Henry in the Upside Down with her powers, opening the first known rift to the Upside Down, which eventually leads us to the events of Season 1.
This reveals that the change in relationship to experimental discovery to intentional breaching into the Upside Down that we know Brenner for is because of Henry’s disappearance. As far as we know, Brenner didn’t even know the Upside Down was a thing before Henry got sent there.
So it becomes clear that all Eleven’s effort post-rift opening was an effort by Brenner to find Henry.
Maybe. Brenner remains a vast mystery and is flawlessly portrayed by Matthew Modine. Or should I say it was perfectly portrayed?
This season finds Brenner in the picture, seemingly helping El regain her esper powers. And help her, he does.
But not long after, the military shows up at the secret underground with one goal: to kill Eleven.
To protect Eleven, Brenner tries to flee the facility himself. Literally carrying her out of the line of fire. Unfortunately, the military was prepared for this and had gunners stationed in a spot to take down Eleven.
Brenner still tries to run and ends up becoming a body shield for Eleven, getting riddled with bullets.
Eleven ends up taking down the gunners and getting rescued by Mike and the gang, but Brenner is too injured to be saved.
This leads to one of the most critical conversations in Stranger Things and the focus of our video.
In his gasping dying breath, Brenner boldly proclaims that he did all of this for Eleven. And he asks if she understands that and will forgive him.
And in a painfully heartbreaking scene, she doesn’t.
Brenner passes from this world unforgiven. Whoa.
Now, maybe you’re the type that is glad to see Brenner being given the what-for. We’ve seen him shock the tar out of Henry Creel. We’ve seen him experiment on literal children. Remember the whole Papa thing? It would be hard to blame anyone for feeling like Brenner deserved this.
But deserving punishment and deserving forgiveness are two radically different things. And unfortunately, Eleven makes the wrong call here. Or at least the wrong call according to Jesus.
So let’s talk about our scripture for today.
This passage comes from a whole chapter that is kicked off by a conversation between Jesus and the Disciples about how to become the greatest in Heaven.
Jesus first explains that the disciples must become like children.
Then he explains, in graphic detail, that we should never cause another to stumble in their walk.
Then he tells the story of the 99 sheep versus the one lost sheep and how vital it is we go after the 1.
And finally, he gets to our passage - so remember what Jesus has done so far. Humble yourself like a child. Humble yourself in others' walks. Humble yourself and go after the one versus the 99. He continues with this line of humble logic.
Whenever someone sins against you, do everything you can repeatedly until the person hears what you’re saying. And then, when they do, forgive them.
Why? Because truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
What is Jesus talking about here? Is he saying that others should hear our reason and beg for forgiveness? No, we should humble ourselves and seek out those who have hurt us to offer every possible opportunity for forgiveness.
And why? For our own sake. Because we can’t be bound up in grudges and hatefulness and regrets, if we are bound up in those things on earth, we will be bound in heaven. If we let loose of them, they will be let loose in heaven.
In the words of Sir Paul McCartney, live and let die. Get rid of that mess and be the better person for it.
But they still don’t get it. Peter, the rock of the church, the foundation we are built upon today, asks, “Well yeah, Lord, BUT if my brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times? That's so many times, Jesus.”
Jesus’ response? “Yeah, Peter. Not just seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
This is Jesus' hyperbolic way of saying, never stop never stopping. Don’t you get it, dummy? I just said that these regrets, grudges, and hatefulness would weigh you down in Heaven. This mess never goes away. Let. It. Go.
So, what does this have to do with Eleven and Dr. Brenner?
When given a chance to forgive Brenner, Eleven chooses not to. And that’s the biggest mistake she could have made.
As we know from the rest of the season, Eleven loses to Vecna, leading to his plan succeeding and opening the rifts that will lead to the events of Season 5.
Why? Why did the beefed, new superpower, Kaoiken-unlocked Eleven lose to Vecna? Why did she go from kicking his hind end in one moment to getting rekt in the next one?
Because she’s bound up by regret, hatefulness, and grudges. Mike ‘the heart of the group’ Wheeler is able to talk her out of her head long enough to stall Vecna until Season 5 can be directed and produced, but she has trouble because she’s still holding on to the past.
She had the chance to forgive Brenner. She passed it by, and it cost lives literally.
The question isn’t, does Brenner deserve forgiveness? I think that’s where we get caught up in our lives.
The real question is, does Eleven deserve to be free of that hate? And the unequivocal answer of Jesus is absolutely yes, yes, yes. Seventy-seven times we are worthy of being free of chains and shackles of the hate and evil of the world.
So, maybe the Duffers did this all on purpose so that Eleven can do exactly what I’m suggesting in the next season, or perhaps it wasn’t convenient writing, and they just allowed Brenner to die without being forgiven. But make no mistake, if you’re celebrating that scene, you’re celebrating Eleven’s suffering, not her liberation.
With that in mind, what does it mean for us today?
Forgiveness is one of the most challenging words we can wrestle with, and I hope you know that it isn’t an easy thing. But Jesus’ mandate to forgive everyone always isn’t about letting the other person off the hook. It’s not forgive-and-forget like a Hallmark card.
Forgiveness is about humbling yourself first and foremost. But it’s not an effort of humbling to elevate the other person. It’s humbling to yourself so you can manage to let go of that binding you up for your own sake.
You forgive so that you might be free of that hate.
The disciples asked Jesus what might make them the greatest in Heaven, and Jesus told them it’s the humble, child-like faith of one who is not tied to hatred, bitterness, or anger of the world.
There’s nothing quite as tricky, and that’s why Jesus gave us the perfect example on the cross as he exclaimed, Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. That is humility. That is a release of hatred on those who deserve it the most.
So, I invite you to start the journey. It may take one, it may take seventy-seven, but I hope you’ll take the first step towards letting go of that pain, that hate, that bitterness and work towards something better for yourself.
You’re worth it.
And we’re here at Checkpoint to walk alongside you on that journey.
So whether you’re Eleven with a scarred past, Will dealing with current identity issues, or Dustin mourning a loss, know that you’re always welcome here at Checkpoint Church.
God loves you.
We love you.