Holy Turf War, Batman

An Episcopalian, a Lutheran, and a Congregationalist go into a bar.

I know this sounds like the start of a joke, but it is actually more or less a true story. Several years ago, my UCC colleague Eric Fistler told me that he and two colleagues were talking together, and they discovered that the three of them shared the same  dream, of starting a new sort of church. A church that would worship outdoors, rain or shine, welcoming the homeless as well as the housed. A church that would celebrate weekly communion as it had been celebrated in the early church: as part of a common meal, at which food was freely given and freely shared.

But before the three friends could turn their dream into a reality, there was some planning to do: obtaining the blessing (and financial support) of their respective denominations; coordinating schedules with local food pantries and churches; finding a location and obtaining city permits.   Finally Eric gave me a call, inviting me to their first worship service in downtown Northampton. It was January, and bitterly cold; one of the volunteers actually got frost bite that night. But slowly, from that first night, Cathedral in the Night began to grow.

Not long afterwards, I arrived one Sunday afternoon to help set up, only to discover that a small group of folks had already gathered just down the block. They had crockpots of stew, and a box of vegetables, that they were giving away free.

And I have to confess, my first thought was: Uh oh. We have competition.

Who did these guys think they were? So much preparation and thought had gone into our ministry; who were these upstarts who just showed up, without permission or planning, to hand out free food on ‘our’ sidewalk? Most frustrating, they seemed to be accomplishing what we were still struggling to do: they were engaged and connecting with the people on the street.

A few moments later, a young man from the group came over to our table. He looked to be in his early twenties; he had a beard, and wore a long skirt. He introduced himself as Tony, and he said:

“We’re packing up for the day but we have some food left over. Would it be okay if we bring it over here, so you could serve it at your meal?”

And he hurried off, to help fill our table.

I am not the first person to mistake an ally for a competitor; this sort of holy turf war is apparently as old as the church itself. In Mark’s gospel, we find the apostle John telling Jesus: We saw someone casting out demons in your name, but we told him to stop, because he wasn’t actually part of our group.

And Jesus tells them: Don’t stop him! Whoever isn’t against us, is for us.

Most of us know this expression the other way around: If you’re not for me, you’re against me. It’s easy to confound the two expressions, as if they were equivalent. And they would be, if the world were neatly divided into friends and enemies, for and against. But we live in a world of in-betweens and unknowns. What do we do, when we are faced with a new face? Do we operate under an assumption of friendship, or an assumption of conflict?

We don’t know who this stranger was, casting out demons in the name of Jesus. How did he know who Jesus was? Had he heard him preach, or maybe even been healed by him? Why did he strike out on his own, instead of following Jesus?

We don’t know what the stranger was thinking, but we can guess how the disciples must have felt. They had been hand-picked by Jesus, called to be his disciples and walk in his footsteps. And now, suddenly, here is this stranger, casting out demons. And I’ll bet the disciples first thought was:

Uh oh. We have competition.

Who did this guy think he was? Who was this unordained upstart who just showed up, without calling or commission, to heal people in Jesus’ name? Most frustrating, he seemed to be accomplishing what the disciples themselves were still struggling to do.

Why just the other day, a man had brought his son to the disciples, asking them to cast out the demon of epilepsy that was sending the boy into convulsions. The disciples had tried, but they hadn’t been able to cure the boy. In the end, Jesus prayed with the boy’s father, and the boy was healed; but it was discouraging, I’m sure, for the disciples, not to have been the ones to help him.

Deep down inside, we all long to be someone’s savior. We want to be the hero, the one who saves the day – or if not the hero, then at least the hero’s right hand man. If we can’t be Harry Potter, at least we want to be Ron or Hermione, and not just another nameless Hogwarts student. If we can’t be Batman, we at least want to Robin.

That’s actually what the disciples had just been arguing about, as they walked along the road together: which among them was Jesus’ right hand man? Jesus reminds them that they are all servants of the same God. And so for that matter is this stranger they met on the road, the one who was walking his own path, casting out demons as he went.

He’s not the competition, Jesus tells them. He’s an ally.

I wonder if it is human nature, perhaps, to be jealous of another’s success, even – or maybe especially – when we are working for the same goal. In a world of scarce resources and limited opportunities, our future depends on our ability to outperform our peers. We fight not just for market share, but also for promotions, and so we compete — not just against the opposing team, but also against our own teammates.. This is how it is, in the kingdom of this world.

But in the kingdom of God, Jesus tells us, things are different. In the kingdom of this world, we try to climb the ladder; but in the kingdom of God, we help another to rise.

We, of course, live in both worlds. As disciples of Christ, we are called to be in this world, but not of it. That isn’t always easy to do, especially when your personal livelihood gets mixed up with your service to others. It’s hard to be pleased for another’s success, if it means they get the job, or the grant, or the glory.

Or the pledges.

The church, too, lives in this world of scarce resources and limited opportunities. And in an era when church membership in America is declining, it is easy to look upon the church across town as a competitor, instead of an ally. We hear of a thriving youth group or a successful outreach program in another church, and instead of rejoicing, we feel a twinge of envy. Why didn’t we think of that first?

But what if we really believed the words of Jesus, that those who are not against us, are for us. What if we really believed, that we were all servants of one God? What if we really believed, that there was enough grace to go around? God knows, there is enough need to go around. What if we were allies, instead of competitors?

And so an Episcopalian, a Lutheran, and a Congregationalist walk into a bar, and a new ministry is born.

Sometime afterwards, as we were setting up for Cathedral in the Night, some loud singing broke out down the block. Tony and a friend were entertaining the folks at their gathering with some old campfire songs. One of our own visitors came over to me and asked:

So who’s the competition?

That’s not the competition, I told him. Those are allies.

(from a sermon preached by Liza B. Knapp at Belchertown United Church of Christ, October 11, 2015).

(photo: Cathedral in the Night)

Land of Bees and Honey

“The only reason for being a bee that I know of is making honey…
And the only reason for making honey is so as I can eat it.”
Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne

BEES are mentioned in the Bible only four times.

Three of those verses are about metaphorical bees. For example, in the first chapter of Deuteronomy (1: 43-44), Moses reminds the people, “You rebelled against the command of the LORD and went up into the hill country, and the Amorites who lived in that country came out against you and chased you as bees do.” The other two verses have a similar thrust to them. Metaphorically speaking, bees are an aggressive swarm – an attacking army.

(That’s how some of us experienced bees at last year’s Belchertown fair: as a hostile army, driving us away from our promised land of cotton candy and fried dough.)

The fourth Biblical reference to bees occurs in a story about Samson – you remember Samson, he was the really strong guy with the long hair and the unhealthy marriage – Samson kills a lion with his bare hands, and then some time later returns to site of his conquest, and he sees the carcass of the lion there, and he sees bees, nesting in the skeleton.

(I’m inclined to believe these are real bees, not metaphorical ones; the story just strikes me as too randomly weird to be an allegory.)

Samson grabs a handful of honey out of that skeleton, and shares it with his parents. Which brings me to another piece of Bible trivia: Bees are only mentioned four times in the Bible, but honey – honey is mentioned 58 times.

That’s a lot of honey.

In the book of Exodus, we are told that the manna in the wilderness tasted like honey. In the Song of Songs, the young lover tells his bride that her lips tastes like honey. In the gospels, we learn that John the Baptist ate locusts and wild honey. And in the book of Proverbs, we are warned that eating too much honey can make a person throw up. Always practical, the book of Proverbs.

In the book of Psalms, we are reminded that honey is a gift of God. “Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it,” God says. “Listen to me, and walk in my ways, and I will feed you with finest wheat, and sweet honey in the rock.” (Ps 81).

Over and over, we are told that the promised land – the land that God promises to Abraham and his descendants – is a land flowing with milk and honey. When God calls out to Moses by the burning bush, God says, “I have seen the affliction of my people, and … I have come down to deliver them from the power of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey.”

(There are some scholars who have suggested that this “honey” might actually be fig syrup; but it’s the same word, in Hebrew, as in that story about Samuel and the lion and the bees, so I’m inclined to think they are talking about actual honey.)

And if the promised land is a land flowing with milk and honey, then we are forced to the inescapable conclusion:

The promised land was full of bees.

Now let’s think about that for a moment. Most of us are kind of wary of bees. Bees, after all, can sting, and that sting can be not merely painful, but deadly. I have a niece who is allergic to bees; she carries an epipen and tends to avoid flower gardens. She didn’t develop an allergy until her teenage years but I remember when she got her first bee sting. She was maybe three or four years old at the time. She came running in from outside, weeping, and in the midst of her tears she told us: “I wasn’t hurting it! I just wanted to pet it!” She learned on that day that even kindness is sometimes met by cruelty. That sting was a painful experience in more ways than one.

So I find myself wondering: what if we could have the sweetness without the sting? The honey, without the bee?

Would it still be the promised land?

In pondering this question, I decided to turn for counsel to a respected sage, someone known for his kindness and humility, someone whose words are few, but whose insights have touched many.

I am speaking, of course, about Winnie the Pooh.

Pooh knows a thing or two about bees; in fact, in the very first chapter of the book of Pooh, he shares his philosophy regarding the Reason for Bees: “The only reason,” he says, “that I know of for being a bee is making honey. And the only reason for making honey, is so I can eat it.”

The bees, however, beg to differ. You may remember how the story goes – how Winnie the Pooh borrows a balloon from his friend Christopher Robin, and floats up to the bee hive, pretending to be a little cloud. Christopher Robin helps with the deception by walking about with an umbrella. But the bees are not fooled. After a few moments, one of them gives Pooh a nasty sting on the nose.

Which is something of a moment of revelation for Pooh. In the light of this experience, he revises his theory. “I have just been thinking, [he says,] and I have come to a very important decision. These are the wrong sort of bees.”

That sting on the nose is an epiphany: Maybe, just maybe, there is more than one reason for being a bee.

Bees, of course, do more than just make honey. For one thing, they pollinate flowers, making it possible for plants to bear fruit. Bees are directly responsible for about a third of the fruits and vegetables that we eat. Bees make honey, it is true, but they also make almonds, and blueberries, and cucumbers, and squash, and tomatoes. Bumblebees are one of the few insects in the world that can pollinate tomatoes. Tomato flowers hold on to their pollen so tightly. Bumblebees grab onto a tomato flower and vibrate their wing muscles, at a precise frequency, right around middle C, and the pollen shakes loose. Bumblebees literally hum tomatoes into existence.

Ask a bear what bees are for, and he will answer: bees are for making honey. Ask a tomato what bees are for, and it will tell you: bees are for making tomatoes. Ask a bee what bees are for, and she will tell you, bees are for being bees.

There is a human tendency to view other creatures as existing for our benefit. Bees, flowers, other people – we tend to value them based on what they can do for us. And if this really is all they are for — if creatures exist only to serve our needs — then when they no longer do so, we can get rid of them. Why worry about the widespread collapse of honey bee colonies, when we can sweeten our cakes with high fructose corn syrup?

Maybe we get this idea from the fact that we have so much power over other creatures. The Bible tells us that God gave us dominion over the earth, and this century certainly seems to have borne out that fact. We’ve altered our atmosphere, we’ve emptied the seas, we’ve modified our genes, we’ve driven countless species to extinction, all in the space of a century or two. It’s easy to see how we might think of ourselves as the stars of this earthly drama.

But Jesus once reminded his followers that not even a sparrow falls to earth without God taking notice.

Or maybe, not even a bee.

It turns out, by making honey, bees don’t just make life sweeter, they make it possible. Possible for us, possible for the flowers, possible for the bees themselves. So if we start off pondering the reason for bees, we end up pondering the reason for being.

Ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
Ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?
In God’s hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of every human being.
(Job 12:7-10)

(Sermon originally preached by LIza B. Knapp at the Belchertown Fair Ecumenical Worship Service, September 20, 2015)