Honeybees and Haagen Dazs

From time to time I like to check in on the honeybees to see how they are doing.

As many of you know, some time within the past year or two a significant proportion of the honeybee population in the US and Canada began to mysteriously disappear.  Scientists are calling the phenomenon Colony Collapse Disorder.  Estimates are that anywhere from 10-35% of bees in this country have died as a result.  Interestingly, in hives that suffer CCD, the Queen Bee is still present, and there is sufficient food on hand to support the colony, but the worker bees simply disappear and the hive cannot be sustained

This summer concern about Colony Collapse Disorder has spread to the UK and other parts of Europe.  Here and abroad there are a lot of theories about the cause of this situation, but no definitive answers.  There are now those predicting doomsday scenarios that are linked to the decline of the honeybee population.  I’d say we have so many potential doomsday scenarios available to our imaginations that you have to be pretty narrow-minded to fixate on the honeybee problem.

But I do see in the colony collapses of the honeybee population a rough parallel of the life of the church.  After all, we know that most churches in western society or declining by at least 10 - 35% – certainly this has been the case for the Episcopal Church.  And I’d suggest that as with the honeybees, our decline has happened not from the top down – not because of the loss of the Queen Bee, if you will – nor because there is not enough food to support us, but because in so many places there simply are not enough worker bees to sustain the church.  Pews are half empty; 20% of the people do 80% of the work; the young are not incorporated meaningfully into the life of the church, and subtle but real collapse occurs.

Because bees live in complex, ordered communities, and because the well-being of the hive depends on each bee doing its part, and because bees produce something as sweet and wonderful as honey, and because their day-to-day activity benefits so many plants and other animals, it is easy to look on the bees with admiration.  Plus, there are no homeless bees, nor do bees go hungry (even in collapsing colonies).  Although they are well armed, as far as I know bees are not a warring species; they live pretty peaceably.  Bees have contributed no dangerous emissions to global climate change.  Their hives are not often plagued by domestic violence or gangs or drugs.  If only we could live like bees – what a wonderful place the world would be!

But the bees seem to be completely unable to do anything to prevent the mysterious collapse of their colonies.  This is probably at least partly true because the bees themselves are in no way responsible for the collapse of their own colonies.

Recently, the Haagen Dazs ice cream company began a campaign to promote awareness of the honeybee situation.  They are concerned because the bees are crucial to the pollination of almonds, pears, cherries, strawberries and other ingredients used in their ice creams.  I take it as a good sign that Haagen Dazs has gotten involved, and I intend to do everything I can to support their program!

To reflect on any similarities we may have with the bees, will ultimately lead us to reflect on our differences from the bees.  And if I may borrow a phrase from Saint Paul, the honeybees do not know what time it is, but we do know what time it is.

That is to say that the honeybees do not know that their lives hold either peril or hope.  They may buzz industriously about the hive and the orchard and the field, but they do so without any sense of destiny.  As far I as I can tell, they are no more able to reflect on their demise than they are able to reflect on the wisdom of their social order.  They may know if it is light out or dark, but they never truly know what time it.

We, on the other hand, have an ominous sense of time.  We measure it, watch, obsess about it, and worry when it grows short or goes by too fast.  And those of us who put our faith in Jesus have been given – whether we realize it or not – an acute sense of time which Saint Paul sums up when he says that the night is far gone, and the day is near.  

It is easy, however, for us to forget this.  It is easy for us – with all the doomsday scenarios available to our imaginations, and with the evidence of the general decline of the church and the world all around – it is easy to be confused about the time, and to think that we have become stuck in a kind of perpetual midnight.

But Saint Paul tells us that salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.  What does this mean?  It means that God did not call the world into being just to watch its demise.  It means that God did not call his church into being just to watch us collapse.

Listen to a sign of this truth as Jesus teaches his disciples about reconciliation and forgiveness.  See what trouble he wants them to go to in order to learn to seek forgiveness and to give it.  He tells them to talk to one another alone, if that fails to enlist the help of one or two others, if that fails, expand the effort of reconciliation to include the church.  

So many people read this text like lawyers, as though it were intended to be an adversarial process.  (I think it’s entirely likely that a lawyer got his hands on the text before it was handed down to us, because it would have been more like Jesus to tell a parable than to provide bullet points for a multi-phase process.)  Like lawyers we can see the opportunity to win the case – to exclude the one we disagree with as a Gentile and a tax collector, and of no consequence to us.

But Jesus is a rabbi not a lawyer.  So even as he outlines a process of reconciliation that allows for the possibility of failure, he quickly encourages his students to see the benefit of getting along: “if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.”  He might rather have said to them, “Don’t you know what time it is?  The time for discord is over, the night is far spent, the day is at hand. Where will you be when the sun rises?”

The demise of the honeybees would have been a good parable for him to tell to help us realize what time it is.  For in the church we have been caught up, lawyer-like, in courtroom dramas of our own making involving bishops and international conferences, witnesses and communiqués; schisms and standing committees.  And in the world, we are wallowing in the red/blue divide of the political season, hurling accusations, pitting party against party, claiming the moral high ground for change.  The political conventions may not have resulted in any colony collapse, but they can easily look like a very strange brand of disorder, indeed!  Perhaps the call for change from both parties has such urgency because it has seemed that our own collapse could be near at hand.  Perhaps we have forgotten what time it is; forgotten that our salvation is nearer at hand than it was before.

Here at Saint Mark’s, I believe that God is calling us to be a community that remembers what time it is, a people who know that the night is far spent and the day is at hand.  Which is to say that God expects us to be more than honeybees: to manage to live in an ordered society, to buzz about industriously benefiting others around us, to make something wonderful of our lives like honey – something like love…

… but when we see the tensions and challenges, and just plain scary realities of the world, God expects us to do something other than collapse.  He expects us to prevent our own collapse by gathering in his name – it would take only two or three together, so we are already ahead of the game.

Maybe he even expects us to be a little more like the people at Haagen Dazs – to take the initiative to say that it matters how we live together, to promote concern for the ways we have failed, and to gather together to find ways to agree to do better.

Because although the causes of colony collapse disorder among honeybees remains a mystery to us, the greater mystery is the unfathomable good news that we know what time it is: that our salvation is nearer to us now that when we first believed.  The greater mystery is the mystery of God’s love, displayed for us on an ugly cross as his Son gave up his last breath.

How did this one death conquer the power of death for all of us?  How did his sacrifice seal our fate with the God who made us and who will judge us?  How did those three short days in the grave define the meaning of every hour of our lives as well as the hope of eternal glory?  These are the mysteries of God’s love.  They beckon us to remember what time it is, to wake from a sleep of indifference, and to rejoice that in this very moment, as more than two or three of us are gathered together, Christ is in our midst.

And it is a mystery that if God has made us not simply so virtuous as honeybees, neither has he left us so imperiled as those bees.

I am praying that the honeybees will be restored to their good health, that their populations will increase and that they will continue to buzz around and do all the good work they do for our sake and the sake of the planet.

And I am praying for Haagen Dazs, oh yes, I am praying for Haagen Dazs to continue to do its good work – and oh, yes, to help save the bees!  Because I think we could use another sign to remind us what time it is – that the night is well and truly over and the day is at hand.

And I am praying that every time at least two or three of us are gathered in this place we will know that the risen Christ is among us, strengthening us, filling us with his gifts, and drawing us together by his love, then sending us out into the world as pollinators of that love.

And I am really praying that this parable of the honeybees turns out to be part of a larger parable: maybe it’s the parable of Haagen Dazs.  Because if it is, then we will have learned to reach out beyond ourselves to extend the blessings that God has given us.  Then we will save the bees and all the crops that depend on them.  And then we will not only have wonderful sweet honey from the bees… then we will have ice cream!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
7 September 2008
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on September 7, 2008 .