Planter and Waters Needed

February 8, 2009
Jeff Taylor

“One planted, another watered, but God gave the increase. So then, what is Paul, what is Appolos?”

“Are you kidding me?!” protests the Corinthian believer, “They planted our church; they gave us life and fed us milk like newborn babies. They watered us when we were about to shrivel and die. What are they!?”

What are the several mission ministers who came, one after another, almost annually, to plant and water a small group of Mennonites meeting in a Lutheran church on Gould street, just north of Dundas square in the late 40s? What are Darrel Fast and Osiah Horst? What is Shannon Neufeldt? What are Maureen and Jonathan? What is Gary? What is David? These are just sowers and waterers, right? God gave the increase.

Wow, that’s a little harsh, isn’t it? Okay, maybe from some grand, cosmic perspective the roll each of these people plays is not that huge; but they sure matter to us. Paul’s self-deprecation in his letter to the Corinthians is written to a church with many problems, just one of which was competition over which apostles to honour most. He doesn’t really mean to diminish the importance of the apostolic work and in other places he lauds it. Still, the language is pretty striking.

There is a wonderful line in the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” when Clarence, the guardian angel, explains that he doesn’t have any money on him because “We don’t use it in heaven.” George Bailey replies, “Oh you don’t eh? Well it comes in pretty handy down here!” Yes, sure, God gives the increase. There is something amazing that happens when you take some dried up old bit from a plant past blooming and stick in in dirt, only to have a new, fresh, vibrant plant arise from the dust. So I guess, from a far overhead perspective, God gets all the credit.” Okay, maybe they don’t use pastors in heaven . . . but they sure do come in handy down here.

Last year at this time I preached a half-sermon entitled “A Powerful Relinquishment” in which I urged us to be ready to surrender to God the incredible power we possess in this congregation (wealth, education, global location, theological perspicacity, institutional moxy, etc.). I urged us to place all of that at the cross — to, as Paul puts it, count it all but loss that we may gain Christ.

But I also said that “merely” trusting God wouldn’t be enough; we were going to have to do something perhaps even harder – we would have to trust each other.
Today I take up that call again to say that we really do rely, not just on some disembodied mind-god, but on the embodied Christ; that is, on the church and its members. I raise that theme again not out of desperate necessity — actually I am very pleased with how well we have been listening to one another and working together —
but so as to be more specific and remind us to place a particular kind of confidence in the planters and waterers among us.

Of course, all who confess Christ are His ministers. But among us are those with particular pastoral ministry gifts. It is not only those in the position of “pastor” who do pastoral ministry: quite a number of people here do various kinds of pastoral ministry among us. Any shepherding we do for one another is honoured by God and is indeed a great responsibility. Our Anabaptist and Mennonite forebearers did not usually hire pastors, but relied on one another to take turns as pastor. At times Anabaptists have even drawn lots to determine pastoral leadership. I have never seen this in person, and have certainly never been chosen for pastoral service in this or any other way. Though I was once chosen to serve on a pastoral search committee by having my name drawn by lot from a bible; perhaps putting the entire practice forever in doubt. We Anabaptists have taken, even more seriously than he did, Luther’s assertion of the priesthood of all believers.

But we have, from the beginning, also recognized that God calls some people to offer a special kind of pastoring care, and dare I say “leadership,” to the church. These pastors always have an enormous effect on the character of the congregations they shepherd. No one who participated in the farewell events we held for our most recent pastor, Gary Harder, and his wife Lydia could doubt the enormous impact they both had had on this congregation. Prior to Gary, we had had an equally long relationship with Darrel Fast. This congregation likes to hold on to its pastors — a welcome inclination in a largely dissociative, consumer culture.

But what about the mean time, the middle time? What about the pastoring done for us and with us by our interim pastor? What is the effect of that relationship so far and what might it yet be? Now I am on dangerously thin ice: that’s the sort of question one should only venture to answer after much time for reflection, perhaps several years. So as to distribute the weight of my remarks over as much surface area as possible, I will tread lightly, generally, and tentatively for now.

David’s experience as pastor, conference minister, and denominational never-met-a-board-he-didn’t-like member, along with his way of carrying energy gently in his dealings with others — all this gives David an unthreatening air. He is calm, cool under pressure, slow to bristle, quick to listen. “Harmless.”

Oh beware brothers and sisters, for the sewer has been quietly dropping seeds and pouring water all over us dust-creatures. Who knows what sort of seeds he has planted here, for they have only begun to emerge from the soil. And by the time they are mature, he will be gone; off to scatter seeds in another garden, or pathway, or hillside. Even he is not sure what all he has sewn and just how each plant will appear as it flourishes. Yes, some things he has planted on purpose and even now we can see what they are: seeds of listening, seeds of patience, seeds of directedness, of preparedness, of diligence, of clarity. These we can see falling from the hand of the servant who knows his gifts — what seeds he has to offer — and focuses on their fruition.

He trusts that those seeds will flourish not simply because he knows and trusts the seeds, but because he trusts the soil. Yes, God will give the increase and cause abundant growth, but only if the seed falls on good soil. David trusts God, but he’s doing something a lot harder than that — he’s trusting us. He will not be here to see most of the harvest, though he may hear of it. He knows he is preparing a garden for another gardener. Indeed, that is his mission, and he trusts us to play our part in preparing ourselves for the ones to follow. This is the ultimate act of love, to lay down your seeds of life for another. That is our David.

Who is the next one? I don’t know. We are in some stiff competition with too many other gardens for too few gardeners. Those that were here yesterday to hear Doug’s brief report from the Pastoral Search Team can only be amazed by how diligent they have been in pursuing so many possibilities. But it is well documented that our denomination is well behind in training new pastors. We expect in the next few years to lose 1/3 of those currently serving to retirement and for other reasons. But we are nowhere near ready to replace even those, let alone those we will need for new ministries. So where will our next pastor(s) come from?

Look around you. Who is worshipping with you this morning that need only hear the call of their own brothers and sisters to begin preparations to serve as pastor at other churches in our denomination, or perhaps at this very pulpit.

I realize that we have identified the four initiatives of welcome, spiritual formation, local mission, and creative spacing as areas of focus for the foreseeable future. These are excellent areas for us to increase our ministry effectiveness and I wouldn’t want to distract us from those goals. But . . .

I have been dreaming about what our congregation could do to help our fellow Mennonite congregations ever since I sat with post-secondary institution leaders at a session at Canadian conference last summer and listened to them struggling with how to make real the axiom that seminaries don’t make pastors, churches do. And it just seems to me that our congregation is in an excellent position to grow pastors for our sister churches and for ourselves. Our regional minister and colleagues at Mennonite Church Eastern Canada have already initiated some fantastic mentoring programs for new pastors and their congregations. Both David and Gary Harder are involved in those efforts. How could we help with that?

I don’t know if God is calling anyone here to pastoral ministry, either here or at another place. But if God were asking me my opinion — and I’m terribly afraid that God is asking just that of me and all of us — I could imagine a half dozen people here (just of those I know well) who already display at least some pastoral ministry gifts. What should I do? Should I say something? Should you? Should we? Can we return the favour to those who’ve sewn us into being by growing brand new pastors to carry on their work? Who is Paul? Who is Appolos? May God indeed give the increase. Amen.