Labor Day, observed on the first Monday in September, celebrates the economic and social contributions of workers. We pause to remember and give thanks for those whose labor contributes to the quality of our common life. So many of the products we enjoy in this country are presented to us in final form in markets, stores, and showrooms that it is easy to take granted those who produced them. It is also easy to forget how our own work impacts the lives of others. Our Book of Common Prayer provides us with fitting words of gratitude and intercession to God on this day:
Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
When I think of an image of work “for the common good,” I think of bees. While hiking this summer on the Game Creek Trail south of Jackson, I noticed dozens of bees at work among wild roses. Every one of them was buzzing about doing its part on behalf of the hive.
Throughout history, bees have served as a reminder to humans of how important it is for humans to work for the common good. Bees are helpful not only to their own kind, they are helpful to humans and other creatures that depend upon food that requires pollination. For example, did you know that one in every three bites you eat and 70% of America's food sources are pollinated by bees? That is one reason organizations and governments are concerned about and seeking solutions to the worldwide decline in the bee population. The bee and the beehive have often been used in Christian art and architecture as metaphors for the Church and its members.
St. John Chrysostom wrote: “The bee is more honored than other animals, not because it labors, but because it labors for others” (12th Homily). The honey produced by the bee is agreeable to the palate and symbolic of spiritual sweetness and religious eloquence. For this reason, the beehive is emblematic of St. Ambrose and of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, two Doctors whom the Church calls mellifluus and mellificuus, that is, with an eloquence as suave and sweet as honey.
Honeybee Democracy is a book written by Thomas D. Seeley, a professor of biology at Cornell University. He has devoted his career to the study of these amazing creatures and the way they work together for the common good. In the prologue, the author writes, “The story of how honeybees make a democratic decision based on a face-to-face, consensus-seeking assembly is certainly important to behavioral biologists interested in how social animals make group decisions.”
The more we contemplate the energetic work, cooperative nature, and fruitfulness of bees, the better we understand why others have seen in them an example of how Christians might work, pray, and give in unity. We can follow the example of the bees!
There is a place for healthy competition in the secular environments where so many people work. There is even a place for a little friendly competition within Christian communities. In attempting to inspire the Corinthian Christians to greater generosity, St. Paul introduces a little competition when he tells them how generous the poor Macedonians when they insisted on sending aid to the Church in Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8:1-7).
Perhaps we are doing the same thing when we compare the giving patterns of this congregation with the giving patterns of the wider Church and other congregations nearby. It doesn't take a mathematician to recognize in these comparisons that there is room for improvement and lots of it.
But the key to a more generous spirit, I think, is not to be found in comparing ourselves with others or competing with them. God is not calling us to be some other church. Nor is God calling us to aspire to the average contribution level of Episcopalians across the country. (I would be a poor priest indeed if all I did was try to inspire the people of this parish to be average!) The key is to hear the call of God to each of us to be the generous creatures we were designed to be and to all of us to work together more energetically so that we can share God's bounty with others. When we do that, people are uplifted, transformed, and healed, and God is glorified.
St. Paul went on to tell the Corinthians, “You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God” (2 Cor. 9:11, 12).
Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, is our greatest example of generosity. St. Paul referred to him as God's “indescribable gift.” Jesus’ method was to form a community and teach them by word and example. You and I are the descendants of that first community and now the message of Jesus and its meaning for our world today is entrusted to us.
Where are the places in the life of St. John’s in which you can work more energetically, pray more fervently, and give more generously for the spread of the God's reign on earth? Please pray about that.
I’ll see you in Church!