In more than sixteen years of preaching, I want to talk about something I have never ever preached about—termites. Obtuse for sure, probably a bit unholy, but its summer and what’s life without a little whimsy? Besides, we think nothing of using a talking serpent to teach us a lesson, or speak of lions and lambs laying down together, so why not the termite too I say!?
Of course, termites are a known destructive force. Close cousins of cockroaches, they feed on dead plant material and cellulose— including the wood of our homes, and we become understandably upset when we discover termite damage in our houses, to the point that we pay large sums of money to have these critters exterminated.
But nonetheless, termites, I’ve recently discovered, are among the most successful insects on earth.
In 1781, an English naturalist named Henry Smeathman wrote a report for the Royal Society. In it, he celebrated termites as “foremost on the list of the wonders of the creation for provident industry and regular government.”
“Termites”, he wrote, “surpassed all other animals in the ‘art of building’.”
Building. No joke. Termites, are apparently known for their building.
The Apostle Paul was known for his building as well. And while Paul was never whimsical enough to use termites as a metaphor in his sermons, I can’t help but wonder if he had, maybe we’d all look at, and consider the termite, differently.
Paul writes, “The whole body nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.”
Paul is not talking about the human body— its anatomy and physiology. Instead, he is describing the body of Christ, a community of which Jesus Christ himself is the head.
“Continue to live your lives in him,” says Paul, “rooted and built up in him and established in the faith.”
According to Paul, this body is not a collection of isolated individuals who show self-sufficiency and independence. Instead, it is a well-coordinated community that takes its guidance from Jesus.
Found on most landmasses except Antarctica, there are more than 3,000 species of termite around the world. But while we can hate termites for the damage they do, we do have to respect them.
Among all the creatures of the world, termites give us one of the best illustrations of what it means to be a “whole body” that “grows with a growth that is from God.” (v. 19).
By eating dead material, termites, I have learned, play an important ecological role by recycling wood and plant matter, especially in tropical regions. But “growth”? How do they grow with a growth that is from God? After all, termites destroy; they don’t build up. On the contrary, termites do exactly what they were designed to do.
The growth and building of the termite community can best be seen in Brazil, where termites have been building for thousands of years. Termites have built a network of mounds just recently discovered is so large it can be seen from outer space. Biologist Roy Funch talks of them saying, “These mounds are ginormous. When combined, the termite mounds— numbering more than 200 million— cover an area the size of Great Britain.”
We humans think we know how to build, and we have certainly done some good work: the Great Wall of China, the Roman Colosseum, the Taj Mahal and the Golden Gate Bridge. But Funch continues, saying, “This collection of mounds is the world’s most extensive bioengineering effort by a single insect species. The mounds are extremely old— up to 4,000 years, similar to the ages of the pyramids.”
Individual termite mounds are also big. Each is about 8 feet tall and 30 feet in diameter. According to entomologist Stephen Martin, the amount of soil excavated in all of the mounds is “Equivalent to 4,000 great pyramids of Giza. Human beings have never built a city that big, anywhere.”
To date, these half-inch-long Brazilian termites have constructed millions of mounds, and each mound has been built to last.
So what does this have to do with us, the church? As members of the church, we would love to see this kind of growth and long-term impact. Maybe termites do have something to teach us. So just as we look at the serpent, the lion, the lamb and numerous other wild-life for insight, maybe too the termite really does have something to teach us.
So what can termites teach us? For starters, termites are focused. Termites keep the main thing the main thing.
Entomologist Martin, again, tell us, “The termite mounds were formed by a single termite species that excavated a massive network of tunnels to allow them to access dead leaves to eat safely and directly from the forest floor.”
For termites, the main thing is the building of tunnels. And they do this to gain safe access to a sporadic food supply. As they dig tunnels to areas with dry leaves, they deposit discarded material in the form of these mounds.
When the food in one area is used up, the termites move on to another area to feed. The mounds are left behind as signs that the termites were there.
For Christians, the main thing is to live in Jesus Christ, “rooted and built up in him and established in the faith” (v. 7) If we keep Jesus as the head of our body, we will avoid the many distractions that can pull us away from living in him and pursuing his ministry and mission.
Living in Christ, we can avoid what Paul describes as “empty deceit, according to human tradition” (v. 8).
Living in Christ, we can let go of the past, because Christ “forgave us all our trespasses” (v. 13).
Living in Christ, we can grow in faith and understanding, and pursue Christ’s work without discouragement or distraction. “Do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink,” writes Paul. “Do not let anyone disqualify you.” (vv. 16, 18). Instead, keep the main thing the main thing: Hold fast to Jesus Christ and live in him.
Just as we have to respect the termites for their focus, its important to also know they are incredibly self-organized.
Entomologist Martin again tells us, “Termites to do all this without any centralized planning. There are no architects, engineers or blueprints. Indeed, the termite mound is not so much a building as a body, a self-regulating organic process that continuously reacts to its changing environment, building and un-building itself.”
Individual termites are not very intelligent, but put enough termites together, she says, “in the right conditions, and they will build you a cathedral.”
Like the termites, we can practice self-organization. We do this best when we act like members of the body of Christ. “The body does not consist of one member but of many,” writes Paul to the Corinthians, many members with many diverse gifts (1 Corinthians 12:14). Some are feet, some are hands, some are ears and some are eyes. Some are apostles, some are prophets, some are teachers and some are healers. The foot does not have the work of the hand, and teachers do not have the job of doing healing. “If all were a single member,” asks Paul, “where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, but one body.” (1 Corinthians 12:19-20)
With Christ as the head, the body of Christ is free to practice self-organization. It can act like a termite mound, a self-regulating, organic process that continuously reacts to its changing environment, building and un-building itself.
At Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia, pastor Henry Brinton took a three-month sabbatical in the summer of 2017. When he left, the congregation was beginning to discuss what it might do to address the need for affordable housing in the city of Fairfax. Church members could see that many families were suffering because they were forced to pay so much for housing in the area, leaving little money for food, clothing and other necessities. Brinton fully expected the challenge would be waiting for him when he returned from sabbatical.
But while he was gone, church members continued to meet in response to the call of Jesus to care for the least of his brothers and sisters (Matthew 25:40).
They met with representatives from Habitat for Humanity and two other organizations that work on the issue of affordable housing, and they asked each organization for a proposal. To their surprise, the three organizations asked if they could work together to build affordable housing on the church property. When Brinton came back from sabbatical, he was greeted with a plan to build 10 affordable townhouses on two acres of church land.
That’s self-organization! That’s a self-regulating, organic process!
Taking their cue from Jesus Christ, the head of the body, these church members reacted to their changing environment and began to build something that would last.
So it seems Henry Smeathman, way back in 1781 was right when he celebrated termites as “foremost on the list of the wonders of the creation…surpassing all other animals in the ‘art of building’.”
It sounds funny, but I think the Apostle Paul would have liked the termite metaphor for the church.
After all, a Christian community focused on living in Christ is one of the “wonders of the creation.” A church body that practices self-organization can surpass all other animals in the “art of building.”
Yes, termites certainly have something to teach us because termites have been able to build and build and build, all because they remained focused; all because they remained self-organized.
So can you imagine what we can do if we kept ourselves focused and organized on Jesus, the head of our Christian body, while being rooted in the strength and courage of God.
May we… “Continue to live our lives in him,” as the Apostle Paul says, “rooted and built up in him and established in the faith.”
For when we do, there’s no limit to what kind of church we can build. Amen.