I am a lover of myths, both ancient and new. As anyone who has attended many of my classes knows, and as those about to participate in the Anglican Way series will learn, myths are not false stories, but rather stories that express truths so deep that normal declarative or didactic speech simply cannot convey them. J.R.R. Tolkien, the brilliant author of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings wove myths as profound as any ever crafted. A devout Christian, Tolkien expresses a divinely-permeated world, Middle Earth, that includes various categories of sentient creatures such as elves and human beings. In some ways, Tolkien’s elves are greater than people. They are immortal, and they have strength that humans do not share. But in other ways, the elves are less than women and men. Their emotional lives are less complex. They are not as fully-formed. And most importantly, they are receding. By the end of Tolkien’s grand tale, the elves will leave Middle Earth, and the stewardship of the world is left to people. The world is theirs to do with as they will, for good or ill.
I’m always reminded of myth generally and Lord of the Rings specifically when I read the beginning of the Letter to the Hebrews. Like the best myths, there is mystery surrounding the Letter to the Hebrews. For starters, it’s not a letter at all. It’s something more like, but not quite like, a sermon. Second, no one knows who wrote it. Over the millennia various scholars have claimed authorship for various saints, but all that is pure conjecture. The letter (or whatever it is) begins like the best myths: “Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors…” It is as if Hebrews emerged from the mists, full of power and truth.
And, Hebrews talks a lot about angels and humans in a manner that is reminiscent of those elves and people in Tolkien. As Tolkien clearly loves those elves, Hebrews is preoccupied with angels. The author is clearly fascinated by them. Angels are, he says, creatures close to God and of great power. But angels are also simple creatures. They having nothing at all to with redemption, either the need for it or the receipt of it. And so, they are in one way more than human but, in another, less. Hebrews says, of human beings—of us, “You [God] have made them only a little lower than the angels [and] you have crowned them [human beings] with glory and honor, subjecting all things under their feet.”
Every time I read it, that last line stops me in my tracks. The mysterious author goes on to add, “In subjecting all things to [human beings], God left nothing [in creation] outside their control.” That is awesome and profound. It should make us pause, and shudder at least a little bit. Not to the angels, those heavenly creatures of power and glory, but to us, with our creativity, beauty, hope, and joy—but also with our brokenness, pettiness, destructiveness, and sometimes myopic vision—God has left the stewardship of God’s world.
This reminds me of the story Toni Morrison shared when she accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993[i] It is another profoundly true myth. Here it is:
“Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind. Wise… [She] lives alone in a small house outside of town. Her reputation for wisdom is without peer and without question. Among her people she is both the law and its transgression. The honor she is paid and the awe in which she is held reach beyond her neighborhood to places far away; to the city where the intelligence of rural prophets is the source of much amusement.
One day the [blind] woman is visited by some young people who seem to be bent on disproving her clairvoyance and showing her up for the fraud they believe she is. Their plan is simple: they enter her house and ask the one question the answer to which rides solely on her difference from them, a difference they regard as a profound disability: her blindness. They stand before her, and one of them says, ‘Old woman, I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it is living or dead.’
She does not answer, and the question is repeated. ‘Is the bird I am holding living or dead?’
Still she doesn’t answer. She is blind and cannot see her visitors, let alone what is in their hands. She does not know their color, gender or homeland. She only knows their motive. The old woman’s silence is so long, the young people have trouble holding their laughter.
Finally she speaks and her voice is soft but stern. ‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.’
Her answer can be taken to mean: if it is dead, you have either found it that way or you have killed it. If it is alive, you can still kill it. Whether it is to stay alive, it is your decision. Whatever the case, it is your responsibility.”
Do we understand this myth, this story? Not to the angels, but to us God has entrusted God’s whole world. Whether the world lives or dies depends entirely upon how we hold it. There are those who would encourage us to believe the world is there for our use and amusement, that it is in our right to smother it for a laugh, or a dollar, or in order to fulfill our own ego needs. Those people are wrong. It is not in our right, but it is in our power. It is equally in our power—and it is our responsibility—to help the world and its people flourish, fly, and sing, to release the world from the potentially deadly grip in which we hold it.
And so, we ask: What will make the difference? What will determine whether we smother the world or help it to flourish and fly? I believe with all my soul, as the author of Hebrews also believes and contends, that the answer is the Church, and increasingly so.
Daily, the world is more and more atomized. Daily, the barometer of what is acceptable and true is only what I believe benefits me or my tribe. Not so, says Hebrews. You see, the Church exists as a witness to the world of a different vision. We here, who Hebrews says are only just below the angels, are being redeemed and sanctified through Jesus, who is, as we read today, “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” In Jesus, God becomes one of us so that, through Jesus, we might understand how to steward God’s world. In the Church, as nowhere else in the world, we find ourselves empowered to release God’s world to flourish. Later in Hebrews the author pointedly says that the Church exists to “provoke one another to love and good deeds.”[ii] Think about that: Where else in the whole world do we learn that this is the way to live? How is the world to breathe and fly if we don’t learn it? That is why the Church matters now more than ever. The scholar and preacher Fred Craddock calls it “tenacious faithfulness.”[iii]
We have entered into the stewardship season at Christ Church. We are in the midst of our Every Member Canvass. 2022 promises to be the Cathedral’s most financially challenging year in decades, due to revenue lost to the pandemic. The world is in our hands, and before that, the Cathedral is in our hands. In order to be tenaciously faithful in 2022—in order to provoke one another to love and good deeds—we must support the ministry of this place, and that includes financial support, ideally with a pledge. Your vestry and I have all made our pledges for the coming year. I hope you will join us.
Not to the angels, but to us God has entrusted the stewardship of God’s world. We are empowered by the Jesus who is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” At this moment, we are blind to what will ultimately be, but we know this with certainty: the future of the world, and of this place, is in our hands. It is in our hands.
[ii] Hebrews 10:24
[iii] “Hebrews.” The New Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. XII, pg. 13.