Bishop Kenneth Carder's Address:
Rural Life Celebration
Morning Plenary on April 26, 2008
And I am Kenneth from Jonesborough. Our granddaughter Megan enthusiastically joined her grandmother in planting flowers and sowing seeds in anticipation of summer harvest of beauty. The soil was carefully prepared, the plants gently placed in the fertile ground, and seeds were selectively and strategically dropped into the black earth. When her grandmother went into the house to get a bucket of water, the three-year-old exercised her creative exuberance. She reached into the bag containing zinnia seeds. Reminiscent of Jesus' parable of the extravagant sower, Megan joyfully broke out of the confines of the cultivated space and began scattering zinnia seeds everywhere, indiscriminately over the lawn, under the trees, and even on the paved driveway. Time passed, the rain fell, the sun grew brighter and shined longer, warming the earth and drawing forth the beauty buried in the soil, pregnant with potential life. Zinnias began to appear in the most unlikely places--in the long grass under the oak tree, under the boxwoods, and even in the cracks in the paved driveway. Now, many of Megan's seeds didn't survive the summer, but we had zinnias in places nobody else in the neighborhood had zinnias.
Well, Methodism is the result of extravagant, exuberant sowing by our forebears as the early Methodists traveled across the British Isles, scattering seeds of the gospel and rooting people in a way of living that increased love of God and neighbor. Those sowers of the gospel and cultivators of the Methodist way moved across the frontier of America and traversed continents, scattering gospel seeds, planting communities of support and accountability, building schools and orphanages and hospitals and centers of discipleship and mission. Now on multiple continents, seeds continue to grow as signs of God's new creation. I am the product of one of those seeds that fell in a little rural community beside a railroad track in the hills of eastern Tennessee.
In that neighborhood of farmers and mill workers, a little Methodist church took root. In that small frame church, the gospel was sown in me. There I learned for the first time for me that God is like a shepherd who enfolds lambs in arms of love. I learned it from Mrs. Mahoney, who greeted a shy ten-year-old with a hug on my first day to attend that church. There I learned the meaning of Christian community. There I knelt at the altar and consciously chose to be a follower of Jesus. There I was baptized, received my first Communion, held my first church office, spoke in public before a crowd for the first time, and had my first paid job--I was the custodian who swept the floors, stoked the furnace, and mowed the lawn, which included a cemetery, before weed eaters.
There on that circuit of three congregations, I learned what it means to be a connectional church. There I was called into ordained ministry. From there I was sent forth at the age of 19 to be a student pastor of an even smaller congregation located beside another railroad track and a river. Those 22 people functioned like a Methodist class meeting and considered it their special mission to nurture young preachers. Both of those faithful small churches in Appalachia have now closed, but the seeds they sowed are still being scattered, and they are still growing.
We are the heirs of exuberant, extravagant sowing of gospel seeds by countless small, rural congregations across the world. Those rural congregations, however, are--and are among our greatest assets for evangelical and missional renewal among the people called Methodists in the 21st century. One rural sociologist, who is a Methodist, has said that the most critical socioeconomic and missional challenges confronting the world today exist in rural communities. And here's the good news: We United Methodists have mission stations in most of those rural communities, especially in the U.S. That is an asset!
But those potential mission stations are in jeopardy of withering and dying. Forces within and outside the church are choking the life from the fragile plants. Among the internal forces is the loss of evangelical and missional identity by many of those congregations. Rather than seeing the church as a mission station and themselves as missionaries and evangelists, too many see the church as a family chapel and themselves as merely mutual comforters or perhaps hospice volunteers for a dying institution. Rather than understanding that they are gospel seeds made to blossom as a zinnia is made to bloom, they are satisfied with remaining a seed that never germinates.
Among the external forces choking the life from potential flourishing centers of evangelical zeal and missional engagement are the following: demoralizing rhetoric that devalues small membership congregations and holds up numerical size as the primary sign of faithful ministry; pastors who fail to bloom where they are planted and expect the system to plant them in fertile soil; appointment practices and pastoral attitudes that consider rural and small membership congregations as stepping stones in career advancement, rather than as gardens to be planted and cultivated toward an abundant harvest; salary structures that reduce ministry to a commodity deployed according to the market forces rather than in accordance with missional imperative; a hierarchical, vertical understanding of connectionalism that promotes survival of the economically fittest rather than horizontal connection that fosters mutuality and interconnectedness between us all; marginalized small congregations by omitting their voice from denominational structures such as Connectional Table.
We, however, are once again calling planters and growers among the people called Methodist to a life of extravagant and joyful sowing, planting, and nurturing--nurturing the seeds of the gospel. Such extravagant and joyful engagement with the good news requires a recovery and a re-appropriation of many of the relevant practices in our Wesleyan heritage. Among the possibilities are the following: 1) identifying our congregations, large and small, as mission stations devoted to God's holistic salvation of human hearts, communities, nations, and the entire cosmos; affirming and resourcing small groups, whether they be small congregations or covenant groups within larger congregations, as primary components of ecclesial and discipleship formation, helping many of our small congregations to see themselves as class meetings devoted to mutual support and mutual accountability; nurturing horizontal connectionalism by linking rural and suburban and, and, and urban congregations; developing a new version of the traditional class leader and circuit rider, whereby small congregations are led by indigenous pastoral leaders but with the mentorship, the sacramental leadership, and the support of ordained clergy; including representation of rural communities and churches in the structures and decision-making arenas of the denomination; calling forth, training, and deploying and supporting pastors with a lifelong commitment to ministry in rural settings; and developing compensation strategies that counter the current market-driven deployment and affirmation of clergy based on cultural definitions of success.
The parable of the sower in the synoptic gospels is really about God's extravagant sowing of grace--God's grace, God's power and presence to transform even--especially--the barren places. And the Bible declares that when God sets out to sow new seeds and nurture a new creation, God chooses the most unexpected people and calls them to scatter seeds of grace in the most unpromising places:Among the slaves in Egypt, who became a light to the nations; in a shepherd boy, David, the poet-king of Israel's golden era; in a lowly peasant maiden from a rural village, who became the most blessed among women and gave birth to the Messiah, who was born in a farmer's barn among farm animals, lived as an immigrant in Egypt, grew up in rural Nazareth, from which nothing good was expected to come, was executed as a criminal, sealed lifeless in a dark tomb.
But from that dark, sunless tomb came God's most extravagant and lavish sowing of good news. Bursting forth from that place of barrenness and death was the firstborn of a whole new creation. Lavishly, extravagantly, generously, joyfully, the good news of a new world scattered across the earth. Those resurrection seeds landed in fertile and barren places, in all kinds of terrain and soil, among diverse people, and in varied forms and structures. But sprouts continue to show up in unexpected places, like zinnias blooming in asphalt cracks and among weed thickets.
May this General Conference sow and nurture the seeds of the new creation in places like the stable that housed Jesus' birth, the town that nurtured him, and the garden in which he was raised, the towns and villages across the global landscape.
Date posted: Apr 26, 2008