Busy as a Bee
By Pastor John J. Pawloski - September 3rd, 2023
Exodus 3:1-15 (NRSVue)
Moses was taking care of the flock for his father-in-law Jethro, Midian’s priest. He led his flock out to the edge of the desert, and he came to God’s mountain called Horeb. The Lord’s messenger appeared to him in a flame of fire in the middle of a bush. Moses saw that the bush was in flames, but it didn’t burn up. Then Moses said to himself, Let me check out this amazing sight and find out why the bush isn’t burning up.
When the Lord saw that he was coming to look, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!”
Moses said, “I’m here.”
Then the Lord said, “Don’t come any closer! Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground.” He continued, “I am the God of your father, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God.” Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God.
Then the Lord said, “I’ve clearly seen my people oppressed in Egypt. I’ve heard their cry of injustice because of their slave masters. I know about their pain. I’ve come down to rescue them from the Egyptians in order to take them out of that land and bring them to a good and broad land, a land that’s full of milk and honey, a place where the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites all live. Now the Israelites’ cries of injustice have reached me. I’ve seen just how much the Egyptians have oppressed them. So get going. I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
But Moses said to God, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and to bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
God said, “I’ll be with you. And this will show you that I’m the one who sent you. After you bring the people out of Egypt, you will come back here and worship God on this mountain.”
But Moses said to God, “If I now come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they are going to ask me, ‘What’s this God’s name?’ What am I supposed to say to them?”
God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am. So say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” God continued, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever; this is how all generations will remember me.
I probably should have titled this sermon everything I needed to know to lead the church, I learned as a beekeeper. The lessons learned from beekeeping have informed my spirituality in ways nothing else ever could. In fact, I see a direct link between my decision to keep bees and my decision to pursue a career in ordained ministry. I would like to share with you some of my observations I have learned along the way. I will also discuss how beekeeping illustrates the principles of Matthew 9:35-38, one of the Gospel accounts of the phrase used by Jesus that the work is plenty, but the laborers are few.
Bees Are A Hard Working Lot
Bees are almost always in motion. Fidgeting, cleaning, waggling (the dance bees do to tell other bees the direction and distance of plentiful food stores), laying brood, capping wax over honey-filled honeycombs, and laying down propolis (a sticky glue-like substance that bees use to hold things together). Everybody in the hive has a job, from foraging for food, attending to the Queen Bee, and even cemetery bees that dispose of bees when they expire. There are guard bees, bees that clean off the pollen on the foraging bees, bees that transfer the nectar from the honey sacks of the foraging bees (adding their saliva which helps to magically turn liquid nectar into delicious viscus honey). And there are drones (males): they too have a limited purpose, as they engage the Queen in her one and only mating flight with her chosen males.
The freeloading nature of drones is addressed in the winter time: the males are kicked out of the hive as they have already given their contribution to the welfare of the hive, and their continued existence taxes the honey stores needed by the hive to keep the Queen alive and well. They surround her and rotate in and out of a ball “shivering” to create heat to keep the bees alive, especially the Queen who remains in the center of the ball of bees. Bees are communal creatures: they do what is best for the community no matter what the cost to an individual bee. Imagine how this ethos might transform our churches?
B. Bees Don’t Waste a Thing
Everything bees touch or work on has value. From the pollen which bees “pollinate,” to nectar which is extracted from flowers, to honey and honeycomb. The value of the products and by-products produced by a hive are not only appreciated by bees, but by ancient cultures too. Honey, of course, was used to make candies and act as a sweetener, but was also used as a salve for burns, medicine for indigestion, an antibiotic, and even for embalming (honey never goes bad) just to name a few uses. Honeycomb was dried out, stretched, and used as parchment for ancient writing. Wax was also used to place a seal to authenticate sacred and important documents. Propolis was used as a glue. And yes, some cultures even ate bees themselves as a source of protein (what a waste!).
Imagine how we might transform our churches and communities if we are as purposeful in using each and everything we have. Our physical resources, to be sure. Bees have a lot to teach us about our environment and husbandry of limited resources. But what about our talents and gifts? The value and uses of hive materials are only limited by the breadth of our imagination. So too, for our churches: it is our paucity of (prophetic) imagination that keeps us from “beeing hives” of creative transformation for the body of Christ. [Pun intended]. Churches become bland monoliths when too few do too much, while the talents of the community go unused. Whether it bee from lack of invitation to contribute to the welfare of the hive, or due to a dominant culture that is not open to accepting contributions from the wider circle of church, can we not see how the failure to embrace our diverse talents as church is toxic to the survival of our hive? Although the science is not yet settled on this point, there is a belief that bees assume different jobs as they age. Young bees forage for food, which according to some accounts can involve flights up to five miles. As bees grow older, they work on more sedentary jobs like capping wax, cleaning, and fighting against insect intruders. But without the crucial efforts of the youngest members of the hive, the hive would soon perish. Applying this lesson to our churches, if we deny our youngest members meaningful opportunities to participate not just in worship, but in the decision-making processes of where money, resources, and programming decisions are made, can we blame our youth for being bored with church and choosing more engaging pursuits.
C. If You Cut Corners, You Will Always Get Stung
Perhaps the most important life lesson bees have taught me is that every time I cut corners, I get stung. Interacting with bees can be a pleasant experience if I proceed correctly, and painful if you don’t. Did I lay down enough smoke so the entire hive is not on full alert, waiting to attack me as I pull off the telescoping cover? Did I zip my protective hood all the way (even a small gap is enough to have bees get inside your suit and hood)? Am I in a hurry? Bees see aggressive, hurried movements as a threat, and will mount an assault against you if they perceive you as a threat. Bees teach us to take our time, and do things right.
Have faith in our protective equipment and rely on it when we are under attack. Be patient. Spend time showing we are not a threat and only want what is best. Has our haste and greed made us unnecessary enemies? Have we taken the time to lay down smoke to avoid unnecessary alarm? Have we cut corners on our fellowship with one another? Are we rushing through a service, just going through the motions, or is our worship reflective of a deep, deliberative, and careful process?
D. The Harvest Is Plenty, But the Laborers Are Few
A lazy hive is not long for this world. When the Queen cannot lay enough eggs to keep a hive manned to replace those bees that die, the hive is in jeopardy. Without a strong queen, the hive is indeed, as Matthew says, “troubled and helpless.” When the nurse bees which attend to the Queen perceive the Queen is slipping in her royal duties, they make royal jelly which is rich in protein and turns an ordinary egg into a Queen bee. (Note: Queens are not special creatures, but from common stock--we are all just a dose of royal jelly away from being Queens). A 2017 study showed that 17% of the bees produce 50% of the nectar and pollen. The size of the harvest is indeed bigger than we can possibly imagine, but there are never enough bees to make use of it.
Jesus was looking at the crowds using a sheep who lost their shepherd metaphor. But using our hive analogy, some of our churches are suffering from Queens who have served a long and faithful term, but who deserve a swarm--a comfortable existence away from the hive where there can be a death with dignity while those left behind can be nurtured by a new, dynamic Queen. What are our hives, . . . I mean churches doing to raise new and dynamic leaders? What are our attendants, . . . I mean trustees and council members doing to make “royal jelly” happen? We need to build building blocks from which future church leaders can be raised from our midst.
Just as sheep will only follow the voice of their true shepherd, bees will only follow the scent of their Queen. There is a period of transition when the old Queen flies off and the new Queen supersedes. It is awkward, and sometimes even violent. What shepherds and Queens know is what matters most is what is best for the flock and hive. No shepherd can lead a flock forever. No Queen lives forever. With careful planning and patience, however, a flock, a hive, indeed a church can transition and even become bigger and thrive with a new voice, a new leader, a new pastor. But that depends largely on how stubborn the sheep are, how oppositional the old guard is to the new Queen, and how averse to change the church is.
As the research shows, most of the work is done by only a fraction of the bees. The harvest is indeed plenty, but the laborers are few. Too many drones and the hive will not survive. But if meaningful work can be found for most of the working bees, the drones will not drain the vital resources of the hive too much. In our churches, we have too few people doing too much. How is this sustainable as a community? To thrive, everyone should have a role (and that role should transition over time). How will our hives flourish to see tomorrow if all of our bees are too old to forage for life-sustaining honey and pollen? We nurture and train our young bees we have so they can lead.