Mark 13: 1-8
When I meet people for the first time, they inevitably notice my accent and ask where I come from. I’ve been really interested by my own response! You’ve heard me talk about the parish and town I left and how much I loved Hartlepool, and those stories will continue ad nauseum, but I’ve found myself saying ‘I’m originally from Coventry… spent about ten years in Yorkshire…and moved here from the North East coast’ and I’ve realised – hardly surprisingly – that all three of those places have been home and hold a piece of my heart. And already, I now count here in that number too. I’m home here. Anyways…
I am what is known as a Cov Kid – born and raised in the city of Coventry, smack bang in the middle of England and I’m dead proud of my first city; it is a city of peace and reconciliation, a city of sanctuary for countless people seeking asylum from all around the world, and it has a fairly dreadful football team who break my heart each season. But, this week, as we have commemorated Remembrance Day, and I’ve been thinking about this morning’s readings, my birth city has been particularly on my mind, and I’ll tell you why…
On 14th November 1940, eighty-one-years-ago-today, 500 German planes flew over the city of Coventry, dropping 500 tonnes of high explosives and 36,000 incendiary bombs. Two thirds of Coventry’s buildings and factories were affected, 568 people lost their lives and more than a 1000 were injured. Over 2000 homes were destroyed and a further 41,000 were damaged. The German Official News Agency described the raid on Coventry as the most severe in the history of war.
The morning after the attack, the city was burning – visible from miles and miles around and only the spire, and external walls of the great Cathedral remained intact. From the top of the spire the provost and stonemason surveyed the damage and saw the two enormous roof beams that had fallen last. They were lying, as they fell, on top of the smouldering rubble, in the shape of a cross. And, right there, with thick smoke in the air and the embers still red hot, the Provost made some history-making decisions; he resolved that Coventry Cathedral’s legacy would be one of peace, not retribution. And the church would be rebuilt to the glory of God.
He immediately went to work, for peace. He took the charred roof beams, bound them together as they were, piled some rubble to form a basic altar, and stood this cross behind it so mass could be celebrated there within hours.
He then collected the roof nails and shaped them into crosses to send across the world, to leaders and people in authority, as a symbol of reconciliation and as an invitation to join him in becoming peace builders for the future.
And then, he took another charred beam and in this great building, with stones thrown down, and not one left upon another, he scored two words in the wall of the apse behind the crude altar. He wrote them in foot high lettering, and it simply said FATHER FORGIVE.
And he stopped there. FATHER FORGIVE.
Provost Howard was not heralded as an amazing man, nor a brave, prophetic and wise Priest. In fact, he was vilified in the press and thought a fool. How, on the morning after such destruction could he write FATHER FORGIVE without any indication that it was clearly the Germans who needed forgiveness? How could he dare to imply anyone else might need forgiveness too? If he had to write something holy, why did he not at least finish the sentence, and write FATHER FORGIVE THEM?
When asked, he plainly stated we can never point the finger at ‘them’; that in war and destruction, there is never US and THEM. There are never ‘those that need forgiving’, and those who don’t; but forgiveness is something we all need, all the time.
Forgive this hatred and destruction. Forgive what will be done in retaliation. Forgive this world that speaks a language of war and not love. Forgive, because we are ALL in grave need of your mercy. Now, just as much as then. Forgive as we recall and remember. Forgive, even when we forget.
FATHER FORGIVE, because we have been led astray and not followed you as we know we should.
FATHER FORGIVE, because we have failed to see that sometimes destruction brings new life and a new way of thinking that is better than all that has gone before.
FATHER FORGIVE, because we have been alarmed at the state of the world and forgive because we haven’t been.
FATHER FORGIVE, because nation is rising against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and we are not people of peace and reconciliation.
FATHER FORGIVE, because there are earthquakes and famines, and we are suffering compassion fatigue and are paralysed because we don’t know how to help…or have failed to notice.
FATHER FORGIVE, because we have dominated and destroyed your world and we are not doing what we can to heal it.
Provost Howard spoke prophetically in writing these words. He knew of his, and our own, need for forgiveness, even when we are the victim. And maybe he could glimpse that sometimes large stones and large buildings, and systems and structures, need to be demolished, thrown down, before something good and pure and holy and redemptive can spring up in its place.
Because, if the blitz on Coventry hadn’t happened, I wonder if that city would have ever become one that is this devoted to peace and reconciliation and welcome. I wonder if that spirit would have sprung up without first the tearing down. I don’t know. But I do know that we worship a God who is a redeemer, and that good things always come in the place of hurt and brokenness. I know that God does not leave things demolished and destroyed but is always, ALWAYS, in the redeeming and rebuilding business.
And maybe, today, we face situations that feel like they are broken and permanently ruined? Or maybe there are things in and around us that may need to be pulled down and destroyed too, for peace and wholeness to be built in its place? For the Kingdom of God to be fully established. Whatever it is, as we navigate our way – externally and internally – through distractions, wars, earthquakes and famine, may we always trust in the future kingdom that the Lord is building here, and as we wait for the perfect rebuilding, and total redemption may we actively contribute to the building of it, and always be quick to pray; FATHER FORGIVE. Amen.