Sunday, July 21, 2019

Sermon for St Andrew’s, RVA, July 21, 2019 Luke 10:38-42 “Consider The Bees”

For the past few years, my husband and I have served as foster parents to a hive of bees. It’s a strange story. When we needed to have some dead trees cut down, the workers discovered a huge hive inside the gaping trunk of the tree.

We weren’t entirely surprised by that. We had three neighbors who were hobbyist beekeepers, and two had experienced swarm events in prior years, losing whole hives full of bees. Now we knew where they had taken up residence.

 Tree workers have a dread of bees, and ours carried a case of insect killing spray  - the aptly named CRC Bee Blast -  with them, so when it became obvious that there were bees that were threatening them, they sprayed the heck out of that old tree before starting to saw it down. Cans were strewn all over the yard that night. The next day, they removed the tree sections and picked up the cans. We thought nothing further of it until the next afternoon, when we looked out into the yard and saw what looked to be a black t-shirt hanging down from the crape myrtle. Perhaps one of the tree guys had taken off his shirt in the heat and had forgotten it.

On closer inspection, though, we realized it wasn’t a t-shirt at all. It was a swarm of bees. So much for the inundation with Bee Blast!

We called our beekeeper neighbors, and they brought over a smoke can – smoke settles the bees – and a hive box, and they dropped the black, buzzing clump into the box. The box was put on a stand in our yard, because bees like to stay put. If they had moved the newly boxed bees back to Ed’s or Roland’s house, the bees would just come back to us.

Our local experts didn’t hold out much hope for the survival of the bees. It was unclear there was a queen among them, and without a queen, the hive would die off fairly quickly. But somehow the plan worked. There must have been a queen, because those bees not only survived, they thrived. The beekeepers had to add extra frames, and at the end of the season, some fourteen big jars of honey were collected! This has gone on for a few years now, and it has been fascinating to watch the bees in action. When the weather has been suitable, we have seen the honeybees out and about, enjoying collecting nectar from our flowers, taking little “bee-baths” on the edge of our pond. There’s been a steady stream of to and fro from the hive box during daylight hours, particularly when it’s a hot sunny day. We’ve learned to stay out of their flight path – they’re bees on a mission! And have never been stung. And oh, the honey! Delicious, delightful, wonderful.

They’ve truly been industrious. There’s a reason why that phrase “busy as a bee” is such a common one: bees do appear to be out and about all the time. They’re headed to the flowers to take in their nectar, and they zip back to the hive to store it as honey. Their mission is to support the hive. The queen lays eggs, drones are male bees whose role is to mate with the queen, and workers go get nectar and pollen as food for the brood of bees.

They understand their purpose. It’s deeply wired into them. They don’t have to think about it, they just do it.

But we humans, our wiring for purpose may be much more tangled and elusive. We wonder why we were put on earth. Are we simply around to perpetuate the species, like the bees, which contribute to a larger ecosystem but at least in their little bee minds, are simply about the continuation of their family of bees?

This notion of purpose is at the heart of what Jesus is addressing in today’s gospel.

Now as a Martha-type person myself, I always chafe a bit at this gospel. Having hosted my share of dinner parties where I’m doing all the heavy lifting and others sit back and chat on the sun-porch, I get why Martha is annoyed.

The question is, why is Jesus lauding Mary, who’s sitting on the sun-porch? Isn’t Jesus himself always doing something – his times of relaxation are so few that they are always mentioned in the Gospels, as if to say he’s worn himself to a frazzle and needs a break, but by the way, he works harder than you ever will, so don’t say a word!

Martha is following the social conventions of the Middle East in the first century: you always provide hospitality. It’s expected, and as the senior woman in the household, she does what is expected.

But there’s a sense as we hear the story that Martha is doing something wrong, even though it’s the sort of behavior that was important, even to Jesus. Earlier in Luke 10, Jesus sent out 70 disciples and told them to expect and accept hospitality from others. Isn’t Martha precisely the sort of host that Jesus had promised? Later in the Gospel, when those closest to him begin to argue about which one of them is the greatest, Jesus will define “great” discipleship and even his own ministry in terms of serving others (Luke 22:24-26), using the same vocabulary that here describes Martha.

I hate it when the gospel seems to be inconsistent. And yet it’s not…

Medieval biblical scholars would refer to the way that Martha lived her life as vita activa, the active life, in contrast with Mary, who represents the vita contemplativa, or contemplative life. Action versus contemplation, and we all have days and seasons when we live more in one than the other.

Here’s the thing: both manners of being are necessary in this world. Jesus knows that. Even he, fully human but also fully divine,  has moments of action and moments of contemplation.

Both the active life and the contemplative life are needed; to choose one over the other can create a false dichotomy. Saint Ambrose observed: “Virtue does not have a single form. In the example of Martha and Mary, there is added the busy devotion of the one and the pious attention of the other to the Word of God.”5

Martha is not sinful – she is, as someone participating in the vita activa – living in a space of discipleship, just as Jesus talked about elsewhere in the Gospels.

But perhaps what Jesus is pointing to in his gentle words to Martha has to do with bees…


Consider the bees. Their purpose is clear to them. Keep the world of the hive and the perpetuation of the brood going. The queen lays the eggs after being fertilized by a drone and the workers provide sustenance for all the bees and they also clean the hive. Those worker bees sound rather Martha-like, don’t they?

But what if the possibilities of what your purpose might be were much broader and richer? What if you didn’t know your purpose and were hoping to discover it?

As someone who had several other careers before becoming a priest, I can tell you that there’s a nagging feeling of “is this it?” when you are not following your God-given purpose. 

We humans are given so many possibilities as the beloved children of God. One person’s purpose may be wildly different from another’s. And we are encouraged by Creator God to seek our purpose.

But that requires something more than flitting from flower to flower to gather pollen and nectar. It requires more than busily trying a bunch of different things to see which one feels right…

It requires contemplation. The Vita Contemplativa. It may well be that Jesus was suggesting to Martha that while Martha had a clear picture of her purpose, Mary might not. For Mary, spending some time in that place of sitting and learning and praying and wondering was a necessary part of her growth. Or it could be equally possible that Martha was so focused on the social conventions of her world that she never even considered if this was her true purpose, and Jesus was inviting her to stop and breathe and wonder what purpose God had created her for.
Frustratingly, Jesus doesn’t give us a clear picture of which of those two possibilities he’s pointing Martha to. It’s like that with Jesus – part of his vita activa is inviting us to do the work of considering possibilities – but I know this: he continued to interact with Martha and she with him after this encounter. She didn’t stomp off in a huff and refuse to speak with him again.

I imagine her in her kitchen many years later, still busy as a bee, yet understanding the importance of her work in a way that she hadn’t before that conversation. Understanding her purpose. Another way of saying that she understood her purpose is much simpler: she discovered who she was. And the work she did flowed naturally from who she was.

The vita contemplativa yielded the vita activa.

May it be so for each of us. Contemplate, then go and do what flows naturally, as God made you to do.


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