Homily for Sunday, December 2, 2018
I Thessalonians 3:9–13
In World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting—a nearly 700-page tome (about bees and beekeeping)—Eva Crane describes how through the ages humans, out of curiosity, have attempted to see into a hive. Aristotle tried cutting a window into his hive, but the bees obscured it with propolis, a sticky resin made from buds and sap. Pliny describes hives fitted with a semi-transparent stone that was probably mica, (and he charmingly opined, from what he could see, that bees in the hive do three things: some build, others polish, and still others make dinner). In 1653 the Rev. William Mewe built an octagonal hive on different levels, each fitted with a small window sealed by a hinged shutter. In 1655 the diarist John Evelyn described a transparent apiary belonging to one Dr. Wilkins of Oxford, complete with dials, little statues and vanes, though it is likely that Evelyn’s imagination got ahead of himself, as large sheets of glass were not produced in England for another few decades. When they were, the so-called “observation hive” allowed humans to see, in a single comb bound on either side with a pane of glass, the queen in her chamber, her attendants gathered round, workers coming and going, or storing pollen, or making wax or building comb.
Just as beekeepers throughout history have been curious to see inside a bee hive, so have readers of scripture been curious to see inside the early Christian communities that gave us the New Testament, and over the centuries Christians have cut various “windows” into these books. Like the window of, say, archaeology, which might use discoveries from archaeological digs to learn something, for example, about the community of the Ephesians. Or we might look at New Testament communities through the window of contemporaneous texts, hoping to learn something about the communities of Matthew, Mark and Luke, for example, by comparing material in the synoptics with that in the Dead Sea scrolls or in the Jewish Mishnah. Or we have looked at New Testament communities through the window of sociology, seeking to understand the scriptures by examining class structure, or the relationships between men and women, or between Jews and Gentiles. Still today we seek to catch a glimpse into these communities through the windows of feminism, or modern psychology, or queer studies, or any number of other windows through which we might look.
I would love to have a window into the community of Christians at Thessalonika to whom Paul wrote in today’s epistle. What was it about the Thessalonians that Paul should exclaim, “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?” Or what did they do that Paul should say: “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.” Sure, we can read back into the letter itself to learn of the Thessalonians’ “faith and love” (3:6), and how their lives were “pleasing God” (4:1) and how they seemed to have weathered persecution (e.g., 3:4). But what exactly went on in that “hive”?
And just as we might look into the inner life of a hive, so might we consider the inner life of the keeper. To learn about the inner life of Helen Jukes, a beekeeper living in the Welsh Marches and the author of A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings, we can interview her: “I love what honeybees do to me,” she said in an interview:
I’m forced back into the role of learner each time I open the hive… They seem so alien to me but… I am the one who doesn’t belong… I have to listen and look and keep quiet and calm, and none of this is possible if I’m carrying too many expectations about how the colony is supposed to be…. In my first year as a beekeeper… I was feeling quite disconnected from my own body… Urban life seemed so full of noise and impenetrable surfaces; I had the feeling of never quite getting to the heart of things. As I learned more about the inner workings of the colony, an almost alchemical shift seemed to take place… I felt my own body relaxing, unfolding, in a way that it hadn’t before.
Though we cannot interview Paul—the Thessalonians’ “keeper”—we can glimpse his inner life through his writing. In today’s passage, for example, Paul shares of his gratitude and joy—“How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?” Elsewhere Paul describes the motherly affection he has for the Thessalonians—“We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children” (2:8). Multiple times in his letter Paul tells how grateful he is (e.g., 1:2; 2:13); multiple times he says how he longs to see them (e.g., 2:17; 3:10). Multiple times he speaks of the joy he feels on their account (e.g., 2:19; 3:9). Paul say that with the Thessalonians he is like a “father with his children” (2:11) who can “bear it no longer” to be away from them. In Thessalonians, as Paul “learned more about the inner workings of the colony” and saw their love and faithfulness, I wonder if Paul, too—like Helen Jukes—“felt [his] own body relaxing, unfolding, in a way that it hadn’t before.”
It is possible for us to glimpse not only the inner life of the Thessalonians, not only the inner life of Paul, but also even the inner life of God. And in just a minute, I want to tell us about our window into that “keeper.” But first, I want to turn to a review that Charles Foster, the somewhat eccentric English naturalist, wrote of Jukes’ book, A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings:
I was very suspicious of the book when I first picked it up. I though, oh, here is a sort of “Bridget Jones’ Bee Diary,”… and I was prepared to be extremely cynical about it. But my cynicism soon evaporated. It’s a very poised exercise in diffidence and understatement. Jukes doesn’t know what to expect when her bees come. She’s not lusting after epiphany. She doesn’t have any expectations.
If you come to anything with no sense of entitlement, one of the paradoxically wonderful things…is that you get so much more than somebody who assumes that the world owes them something.
Jukes’ strenuous effort at relationality—her effort to get to know these creatures which are so very different from her—results in her being humanized and personalized. She becomes more of who she is, and therefore she’s able to give more of herself to humans.
She doesn’t just find herself… She also finds a place—the place where she happens to live. The bees root her in the very unpromising part of the wilderness which is suburban Oxford. They give her herself, and they give her a place and they anchor her to a place in a way which was previously inconceivable.
Each Sunday when we gather for the Sacrament, we have a window not only into the community of the Thessalonians, not only into Paul’s inner life, but also even into the life of God. For each Sunday we come together for the same Sacrament as did the Thessalonians, as did Paul, as Christ himself instituted at the Last Supper. This Eucharist is the “propolis” that binds us all together. If in this sacrament we can let cynicism evaporate and not “lust after epiphany,” if we can pay attention and be without expectations, if we can try to get to know and be in relationship with him whose body and blood it is… The result will be that we are more humanized; that we become more of who we are; that we are able to give more of ourselves; that we will find a place and be rooted and will flourish where we happen to live.
So in this year that we begin today, I invite us to pay attention to all that happens here in our hive. I invite us to “listen and look and keep quiet and calm,” and not to carry too many expectations, and not to worry how “urban life [is] so full of noise and impenetrable surfaces.” Maybe, as we pay attention, a shift will take place in us, and we will “relax and unfold in a way that we haven’t before.” Allowing ourselves to do so would not only bring much gratitude and joy to God our “keeper,” but also, I think, much satisfaction to us, who tend to be at our best when we allow ourselves to enter God’s comb and to feed on God’s sweetness.