St. Luke 23:33-43
When I was still pastor at The Lutheran Church of Saint Ambrose in Pennsville, New Jersey, one of my member (a Bavarian who was Catholic when she was in Germany and a Lutheran when she was in the United States) came up to me in no small distress. "My daughter has joined a weird church!" she said. Weird churches were not uncommon in South Jersey, as they are not uncommon here, and Helmie was a fairly tolerant and open human being, so this had to be something different. "It's called 'The Church of the Remnant", she said, "and I don't know what to make of it." I could hear Britex and bits of fabric in her fear and distress, and knew I had to give her a quick lesson in the prophets.
From Elijah onward, there developed a tradition of the remnant. Elijah, after the contest with the priests of Baal complains that "I and I alone" am faithful. The early Isaiah mirrors the same thoughts that only a few are faithful to the old covenant. When you enter the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris there are signs pointing in opposite directions, "the faithful" in one direction to attend to the mass, and "tourists" in the other direction. There are many more tourists than faithful, and so you get the idea of what the prophet was talking about.
The tradition of "the remnant" takes a different direction after the Assyrian and Babylonian deportations. Now it is a matter of the few who will return out of exile. From the first reading for this morning: Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them. Sent away to learn a lesson, the few return back to Judea to form a new covenant with God, to live a different life, and to bring back new ideas with them. Isaiah would talk about a blooming desert, and a highway in the midst of it that would bring the remnant back.
So there is a remnant here, waiting and hopeful.
Saint Paul once admitted something to the Corinthians, a realization he heard from God. "My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." This man with the thorn in his side, who wandered for the sake of the Gospel, who bore an intense sense of guilt for persecuting the Christians, who thought of himself having a "unnatural birth an abortion", this man is about to discover that these weaknesses are God's strength.
The Scriptures are full of examples of weakness that begets God's strength; Their own journey, and their own leader Moses, the women in St. Luke's genealogy, Tamar a widow who fights for her rights, Rahab, a prostitute who rescues Israel, Ruth, who like Tamar fights for her family, Bathsheba who mothers a wise king, and Mary who is made perfect in her service. There is Peter who denies, and Thomas who doubts, and yet God's kingdom is perfected in them.
And then there are our own weaknesses both personal and corporate: numbers (are we a remnant?), money, the facilities that we have inherited, our senses of failure, guilt, rejection, or inadequacy. These are the raw materials that God uses for holiness and perfection.
The thief (on the cross) somehow gets it. "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He looks at a fellow on the cross next to him, beaten, tired, thirsting, bleeding, nigh unto death and in this one he sees a king!
Look around you in this room. Is it in the windows that glow above the altar? Or does it appear on the cross that adorns our altar? Does it stand above us leading the procession? No, we need to avert our gaze off to your right. There above the healing altar is the central image that needs to be a part of our wisdom. This is not about the victory of Easter or the differentiation of protestant or catholic (but we are a different point in that equation aren't we). This image is about ultimate weakness and ultimate strength. It is about suffering that makes for something better.
We are about to end a liturgical year that has seen so much, and a full spectrum of emotion. In this year we have seen both strength that is ours personally and corporately, and we have seen weakness that is ours personally and corporately. There is a place here for our weaknesses, and there are gifts here that come from our strengths, our faith, our faithfulness. Christ rules over all these. And in our challenges and weakness Christ will rule. That is the audaciousness of his ruling from the cross. The crown of thorns, the cross a throne are perhaps images that can help us in the coming liturgical year.
So we speak with remnant Israel, and with remnant Trinity, "The God of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our stronghold."