In the fall of 1975, I left my small hometown of Monroe, WA to attend Harvard University. As much as I had looked forward to this honor, it was a HUGE social shock for me. I wasn’t ready for it, and by early November, I’d told my faculty advisor that I’d decided to transfer from Harvard, that most hallowed of Ivy League institutions, to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.
That’s when I became obnoxious to my few friends. I complained to them about the too-big classes at the Big H, my lonely weekends (my roommate was from Cape Cod and went home or to a sister’s house most weekends), what I saw as a lack of virtue and spirituality, and on and on. They got tired of it, and eventually told me so. They pointed out that while I was looking forward to something new and what I envisioned as so much better than Harvard, they were staying there and trying to look forward to their own experiences. I was pulling down their source of hope, their futures to convince myself that I was making the right choice.
I was making the right choice, for me. For the most part, I have no regrets about leaving Harvard. But I was being selfish to crow about my decision by running down the place I was leaving.
Pastor Tony was much wiser in his leave-taking. He didn’t suggest to us that he was going someplace much better than Arlington Community Church, even though it is hard to deny that being hired for a position at UCC Central in Cleveland is a promotion of a sort. Tony didn’t crow about going home, back to Ohio. He didn’t make us feel like he was leaving us behind. Instead, he emphasized our accomplishments over the years he’d been here, and emphasized hope for future possibilities at ACC.
Our first Scripture reading this morning references the long story of rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. It began when a king of Babylon (either Darius or Cyrus – there was disagreement in my scholarly source: Wikipedia!) commissioned a band of Hebrew exiles to return to Israel to begin the rebuilding. Gold and silver vessels and bulls and rams and other staples for sacrifice were given to the group as part of their commission.
Some years later, in the reign of Ataxerxes I, another group of exiles was gathered to go to Jerusalem to take some corrective measures. It seems the first group had become less than faithful to the laws of the God of Abraham and Isaac. Ezra was a scribe and high official in the court of Ataxerxes, well-acquainted with the laws of God. He was chosen to lead this second group of exiles.
When they arrived in Jerusalem, they found that Hebrew men had intermarried with women of the tribes around Jerusalem. They had taken up the practices and observances of these people, abandoning the ways of the Hebrew God.
Ezra calls the newly returned exiles to task. He rent his garments (quite the thing to do in those days to show you were upset) and called the people to perform acts of contrition and to change their ways. He called for all the men who had married foreign women to dissolve their marriages. It was quite an undertaking, so the scripture reveals a little negotiation to address the issue in an orderly fashion.
And as these corrections were underway, Ezra gave words of comfort and encouragement, explaining to the rebuilders their central roll in the history of the Jewish people: Some translations say Ezra called the group a “remnant” put in place to carry out the will of God and to reestablish the Temple. The Message, from which we read this morning, uses “foothold.” The thrust of either word is the same, to emphasize the importance of this segment of the exiled Hebrews to show faithfulness to God as an example to surrounding tribes and kingdoms of the power and to show the faithfulness of God to God’s people.
In sewing, which I used to do (had to – it was clear early on that I would not be able to wear regular women’s clothes) a remnant was something that was left over after cutting out the pattern pieces, good only to be thrown away. Yet here, Ezra uses the concept of a remnant to denote something of value, something cherished, with a distinct purpose. This remnant provided a strong foothold for rebuilding the Temple and demonstrating the power of the Hebrew God.
In the reading from Matthew, we hear the familiar story of the loaves and fishes. We usually concentrate on the multiplication of the food, sufficient to feed the four thousand. But I’d like to concentrate on the leftovers. The collection of leftovers emphasizes the abundance of God, demonstrated by Jesus’ miracle. These leftovers were not abandoned. They became a central part of the story, included in all four gospel accounts of the miracle. The only difference between the gospels is the amount of leftovers picked up!
I’m saying these things in case, despite Tony’s care in leaving ACC, any one of us is feeling like a remnant, a mere leftover. If so, we don’t have to change the words, but how we perceive them. If ACC is a remnant, it is a remnant that is charged with growing in the ways of God. ACC is a leftover that is integral to revealing the abundance of God’s grace.
Besides, just as the future continued for both me and my friends at Harvard, just on different paths, there is a future to discover here at ACC, even while Tony is pursuing his new future in Cleveland. And that future can hold amazing surprises, even though things might at times seem to be going wrong.
I have a story to share to illustrate this point. I’ll admit that it is kind of shoehorned into this sermon, but it’s a story I’ve wanted to include in a sermon for a long time.
Here it is: Ray and I were headed for the High Sierra camps in Yosemite National Park. We had reservations for one or the other of our favorite camps, either Vogelsang or Sunrise – I don’t remember anymore. But we had car trouble while driving up Priest Grade. (If you’ve been there, you know how remote it left us). We had to get towed to the nearest garage, but it didn’t have the part we needed, so we had to stay in that town until the next morning. So we were a day late. And then I started having stomach cramps intermittently, but often enough to make hiking for a full day and sleeping on the ground not very inviting. So we arranged to have our reservations changed to White Wolf, a more plush camp just off Tioga Pass Road. We were both disappointed at not following our original plan, but we were determined to make the best of it. We set out for a short hike one day, hoping to see at least some wildflowers and perhaps a vista. We were trudging along, not exactly enchanted, when we turned a corner and …
… we were suddenly surrounded by butterflies! Thousands of them. Above, behind – all around us. We had wandered into a swampy area that the butterflies were using as a rest stop in their migration. It was, I’m sure, every bit as glorious as the monarchs in Pacific Grove, except better, because we were alone among these colorful, delicate creatures.
The moral of this story, and the tie-in to the theme of this sermon, is that God has surprises in store for us, God’s remnant, God’s leftovers!
Remember when Occupy Wall Street used a kind of call and response to fire up their crowds? I want us to try it, to fire us up. So, here goes. Repeat after me:
WE ARE ARLINGTON COMMUNITY CHURCH.
WE ARE NOT JUST A REMNANT!
WE ARE THE HEART AND SOUL –
THE HANDS AND FEET –
OF THE RISEN CHRIST ON EARTH!