20 May 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy, vol. 2 - A Theological Review [SPOILERS]

Every year, my birthday (5 May) aligns with the start of the "summer movie season" - a period of time marked by BIG MOVIES WITH STUFF ASPLODING ALL OVER. As much as home theater technology has advanced over the past 20 years, there's just no substitute for the theater experience: fresh popcorn, comfy seats, big screens, LOUD NOISES. This year was a doubly-special treat: Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 opened on my actual birthday, which fell on a Friday this year. So I had an absolutely wonderful birthday: early morning workout, golf, an afternoon of reading, grilled a steak for supper, then the whole famn-damily hopped in the car and headed off to the movie theater.

You've likely read several reviews of GotGv2 so all I'll say about the movie as a movie is what I heard from Glen Weldon on Pop Culture Happy Hour: "did you like Guardians of the Galaxy? Here's more of that." What amazed me, however, was the theological juxtaposition presented by the central crisis of the movie: what constitutes family? So, there are spoilers ahead - if you want to maintain some surprises, don't read past the jump!


26 April 2017

Text Study: The Witness of Stephen

Prayer of the Day
Holy Giver and Receiver of life: your martyr, Stephen, shone with the light of your Holy Spirit. When his opponents took his life, he offered up his spirit to you, and prayed mercy for theirs. Make Stephen an example of faith and courage for all your followers, for the sake of the one who brought light and lie to this world, your son, Jesus, our Lord and Savior. 
Amen.

First Reading: Acts 6:1-6
In the early days after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the church was absolutely certain that a new world was near, and that Jesus would return quickly. Even so, as the new faith began to take root within the Jewish church, there were problems between local, ethnic Hebrews and the Hellenic Jews who had lived in other places and may not have been ethnically Israelite.
1Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. 2And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, "It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word." 5What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

second reading: Acts 6:7-7:2a, 44-60
After a time, Stephen’s witness to Jesus drew the attention of the Jewish authorities, who continued to be very concerned about the Jesus followers in their church. Eventually, Stephen’s preaching brought about a harsh response: death by stoning for blasphemy, and Stephen became the first follower of Jesus to die as a witness to Jesus.
7The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. 8Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 9Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. 11Then they secretly instigated some men to say, "We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God." 12They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13They set up false witnesses who said, "This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; 14for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us." 15And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. 
1 Then the high priest asked him, "Are these things so?" 2And Stephen replied: "Brothers and fathers, listen to me…
44Our ancestors had the tent of testimony in the wilderness, as God directed when he spoke to Moses, ordering him to make it according to the pattern he had seen. 45Our ancestors in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our ancestors. And it was there until the time of David, 46who found favor with God and asked that he might find a dwelling place for the house of Jacob. 47But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 48Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands as the prophet says,
49'Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? 50Did not my hand make all these things?'
51You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. 52Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it."
54When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56Look, he said, "I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!" 57But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." 60Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he died.

NOTES & QUESTIONS

  1. Glossary
    1. Hellenists/Hebrews
      1. In the ancient Mediterranean, some Jewish families either moved or were moved away from Palestine to other centers of population. These became known as the Jews of the Diaspora or “Hellenic” Jews, from the Greek H{llhnikovß, (h)ellenikos, meaning “of the Greeks.” These people were also joined by Jews who welcomed, adopted, and adapted Greek culture and customs into their faith. It was the Hellenic Jews (also known as Hellenizers) who produced the Septuagint, the version of the Jewish scriptures translated from ancient Hebrew and Aramaic into what is known as Koiné Greek (a dialect of Greek spoken in the Mediterranean during the life of Jesus). 
      2. This is a good moment to think about the fact that these early disputes were not Jewish-Christian disagreements: they were church disagreements. There is no early moment when Christians make a decided break away from their Jewish roots - historians and theologians agree that the split between Judaism and Christianity developed in stages between the death of Jesus around 29 AD and the First Council of Nicea in 325 AD. At the time of Stephen’s death, Christians hadn’t even been named “Christians” yet - they were an apocalyptic sect within Judaism much like the Essenes, the Zealots, or the Sicarii (although without the violent tendencies of the Zealots and the Sicarii). 
    2. “synagogue of the Freedmen”
      1. This was not a synagogue as modern believers understand it, but an older interpretation of sunagwghv meaning a “group or gathering of people.” It literally comes from the roots a]gw and sun, meaning “go/lead/drive together.” A synagogue, then, is a collection of like-minded persons. 
    3. Are there other words or phrases that you didn’t quite understand?
  2. Thoughts and Notes
    1. “No one pages through the New Testament without repeatedly reading about violent resistance. The story of Stephen gives us much to consider, lest we forget the atrocities that are part of the Christian legacy--those inflicted upon people of faith, as well as those inflicted by them.” Dr. Matthew Skinner, Luther Seminary. http://bit.ly/2pmQ8Vs 
    2. “Jesus says we are to love our enemies and pray for them, meaning love not in an emotional sense but in the sense of willing their good, which is the sense in which we love ourselves. It is a tall order even so. African Americans love white supremacists? The longtime employee who is laid off just before he qualifies for retirement with a pension love the people who call him in to break the news? The mother of the molested child love the molester? But when you see as clearly as that who your enemies are, at least you see your enemies clearly too.” Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark
  3. Questions to Ponder
    1. What is your history with the story of the martyrdom of Stephen? What have you previously heard or learned? What more do you want to know?
    2. What disturbs you most about this disturbing story? Is there anything that comforts you? If so, what is it?
    3. What other questions do you have about this week’s texts?

06 April 2017

"der Leib Christi"

14When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. 15He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; 18for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:14-20)

05 April 2017

2017 Books: The Shadow of What Was Lost by James Islington


The Shadow of What Was Lost is a worthy addition to the plethora of fantasy epics by the likes of Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss. If you like long stories about ancient civilizations, hidden magical powers, and subtexts which may include prejudice and social justice, this will be right up your alley.

01 April 2017

Baptism and the Beast

Preaching Text: Romans 6.1-14
     What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
     For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
     Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

From Luther's Small Catechism: Baptism
     What then is the significance of such a baptism with water?
     It signifies that the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin and through repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
     Where is this written?
     St. Paul says in Romans 6, “We were buried with Christ through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Since there was an early out in our school district today, I took our girls to see “Beauty and the Beast” this afternoon. Sure, it’s a Disney movie – about as Disney as it gets, really. But something occurred to me as I was watching the end of the movie. Now would be a good time to leave if you don’t know the story and don’t want it spoiled.
The lesson we are all meant to learn from Disney’s version is that looks can be deceiving, that true love is about what one gives, not what one gets. What struck me today while watching the movie was this: the male leads who are “fighting” over Belle attempt to “make” her love them in their own way, and they both fail – miserably. In the Disney story, what turns the tide are two moments of sacrifice. First, the Beast protects Belle from the wolves, and her opinion of him is changed. Second, the Beast releases Belle even though he knows it is his doom. The end result of all that work by the Beast is this: he dies.
What I loved about this new version of the movie is the presence of the Enchantress at the end. She’s the one who exchanges his ugly Beast form for that of his original body. She’s the one who raises the Beast from death into life. Yes, it is Belle saying “I love you” that proves the Beast has truly changed, but the last petal has fallen from the rose. By the rules of the curse, the Beast should either be dead or forever bound to his cursed form. But the one who has the power to change things chooses to do so. The Enchantress brings the Beast back to life. Once this happens, the Beast is free. There are no further conditions on his life – it is possible he could lapse back into his selfish ways. True love is always free, even if that freedom comes with danger.
Tonight I’m seeing this as a baptismal metaphor. In baptism, Luther says, the old sinner – the beast – is drowned, and a new saint – the prince/princess – is raised into new life. Once this happens, God sets us free. There are no roses under glass waiting to shame us back into working to make ourselves lovable. Baptism raises us up and sets us free. On our own, our efforts to make ourselves lovable will end in death – but baptism raises us out of that death into new life.
You have been set free, friends, but the power of the One who raises you out of death into life. God be praised – live free, and love well. Amen.

09 January 2017

Dear Unsigned Letter Writer,

"Children reflect family values very well. Of more than 127 letters (note: 5 from the local newspaper were copied on the reverse side) I found only 8 that did not have great lists of wants; not one word for other needs and desires. Where are family values? One child only wanted to see Daddy once in a while - how very sad. What can we expect from tomorrow's citizens and leaders? What values & love?? We are failing our children every day."

01 January 2017

January Newsletter Article

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Happy New Year! Like many of us, I’m always interested in looking ahead to what new things may come with the turning of the calendar pages. Let me use this space this month to fill you in on some upcoming opportunities for growth at St. Petri.
We will continue our twice-monthly gatherings to go through The Lutheran Course for a few more sessions, and I’ve enjoyed the Sunday evening meetings so much I’m going to continue with additional courses as well. After we complete The Lutheran Course we’ll shift to a slightly different format with a book I’ve wanted to explore for quite a while: Lutheran Questions, Lutheran Answers by Martin Marty. This little volume comes highly recommended by both theologians and my mother, so I’m excited to get started with it in a few weeks. The format will be to read and discuss one chapter (10-15 pages) each session: as we draw closer I’ll have a schedule printed up for those who want to take part. I’ll have order forms ready for folks in a few weeks as well - cost will be $14/book. If I’ve figured the dates correctly, this course should start on Sunday, March 12th and will last until September, meeting the 2nd and 4th Sundays of each month at 6:00 p.m.
I’m also restarting the Wednesday Bible Study group at Dinners By Dawn in Story City. We’ll meet in the back room at 11:30 a.m. every Wednesday I’m in town and discuss the Bible readings for the upcoming Sunday together. No, you don’t have to buy food to be part of the study (although I’m sure Dawn would appreciate your patronage if you’re able), nor do you have to come every single week. This was a very enjoyable group for folks to drop in when they were able, and as your preacher it has always been very helpful to have input on the text at hand from the members of our congregation. I hope to see you when we restart this Bible study on Wednesday, January 4th at 11:30 a.m. 
These are just a few opportunities for continued growth in faith as a member of St. Petri - if there are topics or events you think would be beneficial for us as a congregation, please contact me and I’ll be happy to look for ways we could put your thoughts into action!
How about you? What’s new with you this new year? Personally, I have started seeking a Spiritual Director with whom I’ll be visiting monthly to talk about the state of my ministry, my personal growth in faith, and the rest of my life as a child of God. That’s the big resolution this year for me. I encourage you to look beyond the usual resolutions and take some time to assess how investing your spiritual health could be helpful for many other areas of your life as well. If you’d like resources for your personal growth, please make an appointment with me and we’ll see if we can’t find something that helps you grow.
I pray you will all be blessed by the goodness and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ in this new year. It is, as always, a true blessing to serve you as your pastor, and I’m excited to see where this year will lead us together. 
Yours in Christ,
Pastor Scott

20 December 2016

Doctor Strange and the Theology of the Cross

"We never lose our demons: we only learn to live above them." The Ancient One - Doctor Strange

31 October 2016

The Eighth Commandment: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
What does this mean?
We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.

I don't know about you, but I am more ready for this election season to be over than any I've ever experienced.

Eighteen months of campaigning. Eighteen months sorting fact from fiction. Eighteen months of partisanship, obstruction, gaslighting, and paranoia. In recent weeks the veneer of substantive political discernment has been ripped away completely, revealing a sordid game of lurid sexual misbehavior and assault (fictional and actual), an almost complete disregard for facts or the rule of law, hacked emails, torched campaign facilities, graffitied mosques, and invective that buries itself so far beneath what we should expect from our elected leaders that we'll need to look up to even see what disappointing public discourse looks like.

Here's the thing, though: we've taught our politicians that this sort of campaigning works. We have elected leaders who have capitalized on polarization, fear-mongering, and scapegoating to get themselves elected, only to discover they cannot work with fellow elected leaders who used the same tactics but don't have the capacity to set them aside once the campaign is over and the work of governance begins.

Thankfully, Brother Martin gives us a way out of this festering swamp of half-truths and character assassinations - if we have the courage to choose the hard path of truth-telling and fair listening instead of the easy slide back into mudslinging and obstructionism. Famous for his invective, it seems as though Luther was the last one who should have written about bearing false witness, but in his definition of the 8th Commandment Luther lays out a vision of a community we would be fortunate to call home. To be sure, politics in Luther's time didn't resemble the modern nation-state. Luther wrote his Small Catechism for households to learn how to deal with each other - the concept of representative democracy wouldn't be put into play in the U.S. for another two centuries. Yet Luther's Germany was experiencing a political revolution in addition to a spiritual reformation. Without the support of princes willing to defy the emperor and the pope, Luther would have been executed long before any sort of transformation was able to take hold. Luther himself spoke bluntly to princes and commoners alike: he admonished the peasants when they rebelled against their feudal lords, but also criticized the lords when they violently put down the Peasants' Rebellion of 1524-1525. One of the most under-appreciated aspects of Luther's work was his willingness to debate, to question himself, to convince and be convinced by means of disputation, and to acknowledge his own shortcomings as well as the admirable qualities of his friends and opponents.

When I meet with couples for counseling prior to marriage, we always spend time in an exercise called "Active Listening and Assertive Speaking". In the exercise, each partner takes three opportunities to state a desire they have for the relationship, using "I" language and avoiding "you" language ("I feel frustrated when the kitchen is a mess" instead of "You never clean the kitchen"). When each partner has stated their desire, the other partner is asked to repeat the statement back in their own language, in such a way that it is clear they have understood what their partner is saying. I remind each couple that in many instances we listen defensively, looking for excuses and opportunities for denial. Active Listening involves listening to understand, not defend. It doesn't even involve listening to agree - the point of the exercise is to remind each partner that part of bearing true witness in their relationship is to see things from their partner's point of view and understand why they may feel the way they feel.

Imagine how our politics would change if we approached the election season with that same mindset! Disagreements are bound to happen, but what a better democracy we might have if our candidates could say, "My opponent X is right to note that this issue is a problem for us. My opponent has attempted to address this issue by doing _____, and while I don't think it worked, I am grateful for my opponent's work on it. Here's what I think we should do to address it: listen well and then you the voters should vote for what you think is the best solution for all Americans."

There are anecdotal tales of presidents, legislators, and staffers regularly crossing the aisle and meeting together to actually achieve the hard work of governing in such a way that the maximum benefit for the most people could be achieved. This sort of work is impossible in an environment dedicated to seeing the worst in those who disagree with you. I hope and pray we will learn from this election and turn toward a better way in the future, and to that end I am rededicating myself to discuss issues instead of people as much as I can. I hope you'll join me in that effort.

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Scott