“In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” (Mk 13:24-25)
Back at the beehive, when the Gospel reading for today is read, the anxiety level is somewhat elevated. Those unsettling words are a little too close to home at the beehive, what with millions of bees continuing to perish for unknown reasons, as the phenomenon we call “colony collapse disorder” continues to plague the world population of honeybees. Words of foreboding and warnings of woe are a dime a dozen around beehives, as so many bees have seen their way of life threatened. And the coming of winter is precisely the season when beehives are in danger – it’s during the winter months that things go badly for the bees. Last winter the rate of loss was a bit improved – 23.2% of managed bee colonies came to their end in the US, down from more than a 30% decline the previous winter.[i]
Still, if you want to look for communities in crisis, you need look no further than the nearest beehive. A pattern of un-explained, large scale demise has been plaguing honeybees for years now. Troublesome as this is for us, just imagine how it feels to the bees.
You’d expect the bees to feel a bit defeated. You’d expect them to do a bit of self-examination and reflection about why things are going so badly. You’d expect them to make demands of their leaders. You might even expect to find some protests taking place at your local hive. You’d expect frustration at the inability to find solutions to intractable problems that leave so many honeybees dead for no good reason at all. Why, you’d expect some of the bees to blame the whole thing on illegal immigrants. You’d expect the bees to be setting up check-posts for the Ebola virus, or some other ague, lest that be the real cause of colony collapse. You’d expect see a rise of mean-spirited religious fundamentalism among the honeybees. You’d expect to see warring adventurism on the part of the stronger colonies, and perhaps you’d expect to see the less well-armed bees resort to terrorism. You’d expect old ethnic and racial tensions to rear their ugly heads among the bees. You’d expect to see clashes between the honeybee police and the drones. You might expect to see some looting in the hives when tensions get particularly high. You’d expect the gap between rich bees and poor bees to be ever-widening. You’d expect the economy to struggle and that wages of the average worker-bee would be static. You’d expect to see a kind of intransigence in the halls of beehive governance, and a culture of name-calling, deception, and self-serving to permeate those halls. And you’d expect the most inane, unhelpful, and polarizing coverage of all this on the 24-hour-bee-news-networks. With so much death, so much destruction, such dire circumstances among honeybee colonies – and with no good explanation - you’d expect to see all these things – wouldn’t you? If the honeybees are anything like us, you’d expect to see all that and a whole lot more. I can’t find any social research about these aspects of the inner workings of honeybee society, so I leave it to your imagination and to mine.
But in a related matter, it is time that I told you of a semi-secret plan that several of us have been working on here at Saint Mark’s. There have been meetings that we have not told you about – mostly they have taken place at undisclosed locations. There have been discussions with consultants. Experts have been brought in. Construction is being planned; site selection has been carefully evaluated. So it’s time you heard about it from me. Some time this coming spring, we’ll be adding a new structure to the property: we’ll be adding a beehive to the gardens of Saint Mark’s – or more likely, we‘ll be adding several hives over on the east end of the property, somewhere near the Lady Chapel.
This is not the time or the place to discuss the details. But from time to time in the planning for this experiment, people have asked me: “Why bees?” And this is a sensible question that deserves an answer. I have several.
For one thing, bees are a symbol of the Resurrection. If you look at the detail of the carving on the pulpit I am standing in, you will find, among the flowers and butterflies and vines depicted there, the regularly recurring form of the honeybee, whose emergence from apparent disappearance all winter long has long put Christians in mind of the Resurrection, not to mention the sweetness of their honey!
For another thing, bees are a symbol of Christian virtue because of their diligence at their work – and there are plenty of you here who know how much diligence is required at this sandstone hive here on Locust Street, where prayer and outreach go on each and every day, week in and week out.
For another thing, the world needs bees. Even here in the city, we need bees to pollinate our trees, and flowers, and community gardens. Bees are fantastic contributors the to the general welfare, so providing a home and a refuge for bees, a place for them to thrive, is a service to our neighbors and to our city.
So there are three good reasons to have honeybees here on Locust Street.
But here is another reason that bees make good sense for us, why this ancient symbol is important for a modern people: because despite years of colony collapse, the bees haven’t disappeared altogether; because even though the honeybee world is crashing and burning in many places, the bees still keep making honey; because even though the hives are in trouble, the bees have not given up.
In this day and age honeybees are a sign of hope, when everything is falling apart, precisely because everything has already fallen apart for the honeybees – but they are far from finished off. Yes, honeybees are a sign of hope in a collapsing world! And all too often this world seems like it is falling down around us.
Jesus said to his disciples, "In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken….” Lord, have mercy – he was expecting things to fall apart! But that’s not all he said: “Then,” he said, “they will see `the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”
No one who heard him seemed to worry about whether or not they themselves would be among the elect - who’d be in and who’d be out - and I suggest to you that this is exactly how Jesus intended them to hear him – not pre-occupied with themselves and their own sense of identity. Rather, when they heard these warnings, they were attentive to Jesus and what he was disclosing about himself and the hope that awaits his people, even after the whole world has fallen apart.
“Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” Keep awake! For you will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with power and great glory!
My friends, the honeybees may give us a run for our money when it comes to troubles, but if you want a picture of a world that is falling apart, you hardly need me to draw it for you. We cannot even speak to one another in this country, let alone speak peaceably. We can hardly speak to other Christians, let alone speak lovingly to Muslims, as we are called to do. We cannot seem to find solutions to the problems that plague us, even though most of them are problems of our own making. Colony collapse is too quaint a picture for the misery we visit upon one another in our own city, our nation, and abroad. Our drones alone are more deadly – more apocalyptic – than any swarm of bees could ever be. Mind you, we’ve got a lot worse than drones flying around the skies – and so do others, who have poorer judgment than we can imagine.
If you are looking for reasons to riot in the streets you will find them. If you are wondering whether justice has faltered in the public square, it is probably worse than you think. If you fear for the future of the planet, your fears look well founded to me. If the wounds of war have left you frightened, uncertain, and hopeless, you are not crazy, you are a casualty. And if you suspect that collapse is not so far away, just ask the bees.
Which is why - in the middle of a troubled city, in the middle of a troubled world - we need a beehive right here! God willing it will survive, but if it doesn’t we will try again. We need a beehive as a living icon of the ruin that pervades the created order on the one hand, and of Christ’s insistent Resurrection on the other.
We need a beehive to remind us that when all goes dark, and winter seems like it will never end, and everything has collapsed, the promise of the coming of the Son of Man with power and great glory still lies close at hand.
We need a beehive as a sign of solidarity with all those who suffer and who perish without explanation, without justice, without a chance.
We need a beehive where the buzzing bees remind us that Christ’s call to us is a call to hear his good news even in the midst of adversity, a call to follow him even though the way is hard, a call to be hopeful even though the winter is long.
Some people, no doubt, will find it a bit nervous-making to walk along the street in the vicinity of a beehive. Some fear the bees’ stingers more than they value their social contributions. Some will check to make sure they have their EpiPens close at hand when they get near the Lady Chapel. Thus will it ever be.
God willing, the plague of colony collapse disorder among honeybees will come to an end before long. But until it does, I pray that a beehive at Saint Mark’s will be a quietly buzzing sign of the hope in Christ that we proclaim even though the world seems to be falling apart around us.
And when this hope becomes hard to believe in, and we are ready to dismiss Jesus because, after all, things didn’t unfold just exactly in the way he said they would, and the threat of darkness presses in on us again, and the winter has chilled us to our bones, then we will go together to the hive, and collect the honey that the bees have made there, and we will feed it to one another, and by God’s grace and the diligence of his bees, we shall delight in its sweetness.
Thanks be to God!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
30 November 2014
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia
[i] Alex B. Jones, et al, for the Bee Informed Partnership (beeinformed.com), preliminary report, May 23, 2014