First Congregational Church
(United Church of Christ)
Rev. Toby Jones, Pastor

101 State Street
Charlevoix, MI 49720

Sermon: The Kingdom of God: an Unweeded Garden 04/18/2021

                     The Kingdom of God: an Unweeded Garden

          Offered by Toby Jones to the People of ChxUCC on 4/18/21

         (Based on Matthew 13:24-30, John 10:7-16, & Luke 9:49-50)


          I’ve never been much of a gardener, but occasionally I’ll have the chance to spend some time in some of my friends’ gardens. Some of them have an amazing way with flowers, vegetables, and all things green. I don’t have free reign when it comes to other people’s gardens. I’m relegated to watering when they’re out of town or unable to get to it. But my gardening friends have learned the hard way never to turn me loose on their weeds. You see, I’ve pulled out more than a few good plants and flowers when I thought all I was doing was weeding. I’ve pulled out little fledgling something or others – chives, parsley, and even some tomato stalks without knowing it. So nowadays, about the only way anyone lets me into their garden to weed is if they can actually point out exactly what to pull out and what to leave – and then stay there watching me so I don’t screw it up!

          Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to this story Jesus told about the unweeded garden. God’s kingdom, Jesus tells us, is like an unweeded garden, a huge mixture of good and bad, of productive and unproductive. And did you happen to hear that it is NOT for the Lord’s servants to do the weeding? The servants of the king came to their Lord and Master Gardener dutifully and asked, “Do you want us go and pull the weeds up?” And without hesitation the king replied, “No, for while you are pulling up the weeds, you may root up some of the wheat as well. Let both grow together until the harvest.” Let them BOTH grow TOGETHER until the harvest.

          What a lesson! What a challenge! What a metaphor for life! If we are going to call ourselves followers of Jesus, then we’re going to have to get used to living AND loving in an UNweeded garden. We’re to make no distinctions about who is good and who isn’t, about who is in and who is out, and about who gets water and who doesn’t.

          It really shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus prefers the garden of his kingdom to be unweeded. Remember in his famous Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus put it this way: “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you; Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be true sons of your father in heaven. For God causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:43-45) That’s our model; that’s our calling – to live and love in an unweeded garden and to make no distinction in how we treat people. When it comes to people – ALL people – we are called and commanded to stay out of the weeding business, to let our light shine and our love fall upon the evil as well as the good, on the unrighteous as well as the righteous.

          As a teacher of World Religions at NCMC for almost a decade, one of fascinating things I observed over the years was a growing interest my students seemed to have in Buddhism and Hinduism, while their interest in Christianity continued to wane and fade away. Do you know what draws younger Americans to these other religions, rather than to Christianity? It’s the fact that Buddhists and Hindus don’t dismiss, criticize, or condemn people of other religions. Buddhists and Hindus consider ALL religious paths equally valid. Younger generations are way more drawn to a religious faith that is truly open to and respectful of other religious faiths.

          When asked by a reporter during his march to the sea if Gandhi wanted to convert the whole world to Hinduism, do you remember Gandhi’s reply? ”No! I simply want Hindus to be better Hindus, Jews to be better Jews, Christians to be better Christians, and Muslims to be better Muslims.” This was Gandhi’s way of acknowledging that no religion is superior to any other and no truly religious people should ever judge or condemn those of another religion. Gandhi also once said that “the essence of Hinduism is to learn to see God in every living being and then act accordingly.” Isn’t that pretty much the essence of Christianity, too? Isn’t that exactly what Jesus did? If only his followers could do the same, right?

          Judging others is such a slippery slope, isn’t it? We’re always making judgments without realizing how limited our information is. Do we have any teachers or retired teachers in our congregation? Teachers know a little something about working in an unweeded garden, don’t we? Each and every classroom is the ultimate unweeded garden. For the almost 20 years I taught, every single fall, when I’d get my new class lists, I’d do the same, stupid, judgmental thing. I’d run my index finger down the list of names, hoping that I’d have certain “good kids” in my class, and hoping even more fervently that I wouldn’t have certain “weeds” in my classroom. But despite my hoping and praying over all those years, I always wound up with some unique mix of the kids I wanted and those I didn’t want to have. And do you know what else I remember about all my classes over 20 years of teaching? Some of the kids I thought I really wanted to have weren’t always so great, AND one or two of the kids I thought would absolutely ruin my class, actually turned out to be a lot better than I thought. In the end, I guess I wasn’t that good at telling which were the weeds and which were the flowers, which is probably the essence of Jesus’s point in this parable, right? In the end, the true challenge of teaching wasn’t to weed the garden, but to give all the kids in the garden of my classroom my absolute best, whether I thought they were weeds or beautiful flowers. The challenge was to learn to see God in every student and treat them accordingly.

          You know, we live in a time and in a country where more Christians than ever want to weed the garden. And it’s not just that Christians want to weed the garden: we want to weed it NOW. For many Christians, it’s the Muslims who are the weeds in the world’s garden, and if we could just separate and get rid of “them – with all their terrorists and suicide bombers – we’d be set. For others in our so-called Christian family, it’s the pro-choicers, or the homosexuals, or the liberals, or the conservatives, or maybe those in the Black Lives Matter movement who need to be weeded out, so that God’s “true” kingdom can come. You can fill in the blanks on who and what your weeds are, but we’ve all got people we consider to be weeds, right?

          But our Master Gardener – Jesus the Christ – has made it clear; we’re not very good weeders; we’re not qualified to do that job. Despite our good intentions, when we weed, we pull out and get rid of too much stuff that God wants and that God is still working with. In our impatience to get the weeding done, we lose sight of the fact that, as Isaiah said some 2,800 years ago, “God’s ways are not like our ways.” (Isaiah 55:8) In Luke 9, the disciples got a first hand, up-close view of the fact that God’s ways aren’t like our ways. They were out healing and ministering to people in Jesus’s name, and they came upon some other folks who were doing the same good work, but not in Jesus’s name. They came running back to Jesus, like grade school tattle tales, to tell on the renegade healers, expecting Jesus to get all riled up, to call in the cavalry, and go shut these “others” down. But Jesus wasn’t the least bit upset by the other healers. In fact, he affirmed their work, because it was good work, the right work to be doing. So he said, “Don’t stop them…for whoever is not against you is for you.” Wait a minute…What? That’s not how we think of that quote as going, is it? That’s because Jesus has been misquoted on this very line by all sorts of important people, including some of our recent American Presidents. Christians often mistakenly think that Jesus said, “Whoever is not for us is against us.” But that is the opposite of what Jesus said, further evidence that it’s an unweeded garden we’re called to live in.

          ‘Come on, Toby. Aren’t there are a number of passages in our scriptures that do give us Christians license to weed, or at least criteria we can use to weed on God’s behalf?’ Yes, as a matter of fact there are such passages. I won’t chronicle all of them now, but I do want to examine one of the biggest and most influential of these apparent “license-to-weed” passages that we Christians often call upon to justify our judgmentalism. It’s the one we read earlier from John chapter 10, beginning in verse 7. Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers; but the sheep did not heed them. I am the door; if any one enters by me he will be saved.” Could this be any clearer? Isn’t Jesus putting himself at the door of the kingdom of God? He’s the gatekeeper. That means, that as followers of Jesus, we’re set! We’re on the “right” side of this whole religious argument! Sounds like license to weed, right? The God we worship is the true God, and so all the Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists must be the weeds. Let the weeding begin, right?

          Not so fast. Not so fast. If we keep reading in this very same tenth chapter of John’s gospel, we come to verse 16. And here Jesus says: “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must bring them in also, and they will heed my voice. So, ultimately, there shall be one flock and one shepherd.”

          Wait a minute…What did Jesus say? Other sheep? Not of this fold? Sheep that WILL hear his voice – note the future tense. Can you see how John 10 – when you read it entirely and in its context – is NOT license to weed at all, but, in fact, quite the opposite?

          My friends, the God we worship is alive. The God that these scriptures give testament to is still working! He’s not finished with any of us yet, and He’s certainly not finished with the world. We can’t start weeding for two reasons: #1- It’s too soon, and #2 – it’s not our job.

          So here’s my challenge for us this morning and this week, and it’s a BIGGIE! …What if we agreed NOT to weed?…What if you and I agreed to let go of weeding the world’s garden forever? What if we agreed to let go of judging others forever? What if our only job were to love, to serve, to feed, and to lift up others – ALL others – indiscriminately? What if our little church community embraced the fact that we are an unweeded garden? What if we openly admitted and owned up to the fact that we are the weeds in somebody else’s garden? What if we committed to letting the rain of our love fall on the just as well as on the unjust? What if we in this congregation gave up weeding…for good?

          The Kingdom of God is and always will be and UNweeded garden. As long as we’re alive, we are unfinished works in progress. Paul put it this way in Philippians 1: “And I am confident that God who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ.” We can’t weed the garden of humanity when all its living parts are still in process and still growing. Jesus, in this parable, threw God’s kingdom alongside an unweeded garden for a reason; and that reason is so that we’d stop trying to weed it. Amen.