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Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

Time Event
Cut everything
At lunch yesterday, a stray comment on the need to reduce government expenditures prompted a snarl from a friend about cutting the defense budget. For my friend, government spending on defense is Bad and government spending on other stuff is Good: a simplistic dichotomy, but characteristic of too many folks.

Me, I think government spending is the problem, itself. That means that yes, the defense budget needs to be cut. And, yes, everything else needs to be cut, too. Really cut, not just slow-the-rate-of-increase-in-spending cut. Whole departments and multitudes of federal programs need to be eliminated. Rolled back. Dropped from the to-do list.

Instead of spending like you're going shopping while hungry, we need to decide how much money there is to spend, then prioritize it. The question for defense then is, if we've only got X dollars to spend, how do we get the most bang for our buck? And the same question needs to be asked of everything else.

I propose a swap. Let's agree on a total amount to spend. Defense gets X amount of that, entitlement programs get Y amount, and everything else gets Z amount. The people who care about defense will then propose how we defend the country with only that much money. The people who care about entitlements will then propose what programs to fund with only that much money. And they both have to come up with a plan for everything else -- with only that much money. That's the key: with only that much money.

I'm not holding my breath on that, of course. For while I'd be willing to cut defense extensively in return for cutting the other stuff extensively, my friend and those on his side just want to cut defense and increase the other stuff. They think it's a moral choice, rather than a financial one; indeed, they would cut defense even if the budget as a whole were in balance, and increase the other stuff no matter how out of balance we are.

Meanwhile, the spending increases even if no one proposes any increases. The budget has built-in escalators to spare Congressmen the need to wrestle with hard choices. In the federal government's budgeting process, the numbers that were intended as ceilings have turned into floors, and the only answer to any problem is More. The conservative responds that the only cure for that is Less. I'd prefer an intelligent, planned Less, but I'd settle for anything that gets us to Less. Because More is destroying us.
Last Sunday's sermon, by request

Isaiah 53

Hope for the Broken

I want to talk today about the most common human experience – something we all have known, to one degree or another.


The pain of failure, or of grief, or of disappointment, or of embarrassment, or physical pain, or fear, or a sour relationship somewhere, or rejection . . . there are lots of different kinds of pain, but all of us have known some kind of pain in our lives. It’s not something one can go through life and avoid.

How strange, then, that we so often pretend that it isn’t a very big factor in our lives. We go to great lengths to convince ourselves and others that things are just hunky dory, always have been, probably will go on that way – and we know that’s not so. We carry around a kind of idea in our heads: we call it “being normal.”

Years ago, I was working with an eleven-year-old Scout on his Family Living Skill Award (the ancestor of Family Life Merit Badge), and I asked him, “What is a family?” He said that a family was a mom and a dad, and a couple of children, and a dog, who lived in a big house with a yard and a fence around it. Knowing that Derek was an only child of a single mom who lived in a trailer park, I asked him, “Does that describe your family?” To which he replied, “Well, we have a dog.”

You all know what “being normal” is. It’s like the folks of Lake Wobegone, that Garrison Keillor tells stories of.

. . . the little town that time forgot, that the decades cannot improve, where all the
            women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.

How strange, that so many of Keillor’s stories from Lake Wobegone deal with pain: the pain of losing the big game; of a little boy sweating in fear as he prepares to recite a poem in public; of triumphs quashed and prayers unheard and lives unfulfilled – all the bittersweet lessons learned by the Wobegonians.

"Normal” is a fantasy – an ideal that no one attains.

A friend of mine told me once of returning from a pastoral call with his wife, who was also a pastor. They had been visiting a young family you would have to say was normal: fine folks, fine children, fine house, fine lifestyle, good church-goers, solid citizens – and their marriage in deep trouble and no one knew. And the wife of my friend turned to him and said, “I guess nobody’s normal.” And he replied, “it took you this long to figure that out?

And my friend said to me, “You know, you’d think we’d know better, but we don’t. We all want there to be – somewhere – somebody who is “normal,” someone without problems, or pain. But if we really take our theology seriously,” he said, “we’d know that all of us are broken, or we wouldn’t need God to do something to make us whole.”

And that sank deep in me. Yes, it’s true: everybody is broken – somewhere, somehow. And, yes, it’s also true that I want there to be someone else I can call “normal” so that I can have hope to be like that person. And what happens when it finally gets through that no one is without pain? Well, people react differently, depending upon how important it is to them.

One reaction, oddly enough, is relief. “I thought I was the only one” is a pretty frequent reaction, and it’s sometimes good to know that the burden we’re carrying is not due to any monstrousness of our own, but is something that a lot of “normal” people have.

Another reaction is fear. We come to depend on others to symbolize our hope, and when those others are seen to have pain, we wonder what hope there can be for us.

And then, there is anger. A broken idol arouses resentment, and when we come to expect great things of someone else, our admiration can turn very easily to rage when we see that this one is no better than us. Not that they ever claimed to be better, but we raised them up and in our embarrassment at fooling ourselves, we blame them and tear them down for daring to fail us. The mob who howled for Jesus’ blood had only the day before sat in rapt attention at his feet.

   Who does he think he is? Save yourself, if you are the Son of God. Come down from off the cross, and
            then we will believe in you. I guess he won’t fool us again, putting on those pious airs!

But you know, neither relief, nor fear, nor anger, gets any nearer to the central core of the problem. How can the broken be made whole? Can the broken be made whole at all? Well, to answer that question, we have to turn to what God did in Jesus Christ, here prophesied by Isaiah. Listen:

Surely he has borne our griefs    
                    and carried our sorrows;
            yet we esteemed him stricken,
                    smitten by God, and afflicted.
            But he was wounded for our transgressions,
                    he was bruised for our iniquities;
            upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
                    and with his stripes we are healed.
            All we like sheep have gone astray;
                    we have turned every one to his own way;
            and the Lord has laid on him
                    the iniquity of us all.

My friends, we all know that there some things that God will not spare us, no matter what. He has given us a power of choosing, and what we choose for ourselves we can often make come to pass, both for good and for ill. And if God protected us from every bad choice, then we would never learn why it is important to make good choices. We all know this, no matter how hard we pray to be delivered from our own folly. We know this.

But it is harder to understand that there some things which God cannot spare us, no matter what – not without unmaking our nature and starting over. He cannot spare us the pain of grief, or of death; we are mortal, after all. Nor can he spare us the pain of growing, where every gain involves a loss.

What God has done is something else. Rather than sparing us all our pain, he took it all onto himself. In Jesus Christ, God shared every horror and every burden we face – took it onto himself. And why? So that we who are broken might be made truly whole.

            Yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him;
                    he has put him to grief;
            when he makes himself an offering for sin,
                    he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days;
            the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand;
                    he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied;
            by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
                    make many to be accounted righteous;
            and he shall bear their iniquities.

Jesus heals our lives.

On the cross he took our shame – even the shame we feel at being broken. We don’t have to put up a brave front with him. If anyone was “normal,” it was Jesus – and he, too, was broken. So why should we carry the weight of that secret shame? It is not longer a shame to be broken.

On the cross he took our guilt. We don’t have to be tied to the past. The past is past. We can go on, now.

On the cross he took our loneliness. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” That was his cry. He knew what it felt like to carry that pain alone, so that we would no longer be alone in our pain.

On the cross he took our fears, our regrets, our helplessness. We no longer have to stagger under that load. He took it all.

And he gives us love: love that no pain can break, no act can shatter.

He gives us his power: power to go on, power to know joy, power to deal with a host of problems.

He gives us reconciliation. We can be reconciled to God, and have peace in our hearts. And we can be reconciled to each other, and have peace in our relationships.

And he gives us hope. Hope, by the way, is not bargain-basement faith. So often we say, “I hope so,” when we mean, “don’t count on it.”

Are you coming to the bean dinner?
            I hope so.  (That means an IU game is on TV.)

But hope is not that. Hope is the sure conviction that God has something for us that no pain can defeat, and that as surely as God raised Jesus from the dead after his death on the cross, God will raise us with Jesus: Raise us now, to walk in newness of life; and raise us hereafter to life eternal when he shall return for us.

Hope looks forward. Hope dares to believe in joy even when all is dark. Hope enables us to laugh and love even in unlikely times. All his Jesus gives us, for he has taken the weight of all our sin and grief off of our shoulders and borne it himself, so that we can be free.

And what does it feel like to be free? Does it mean we have no more pain, no more problems? No. Freedom is not the same as not being hurt or perplexed. Freedom means being delivered from the bondage of our ills. It means being free to act, instead of just react to the next shock. It means to go forward in strength, with Jesus by our side. It is an experience of tasting the goodness of life that God has given us. And it is something that every one of us can have.

Take the pain and give it to Jesus – and go forth renewed in his strength. Amen.

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