Father Forgive (11/20/16)
Winston Churchill visits the remains of Coventry Cathedral in 1941.
On November 20, 2016 we celebrated Christ the King Sunday. We examined Jesus' call for forgiveness. I also told the story of Coventry Cathedral. It's an amazing story and there are some good pictures in this blog post.
Good morning! The title for this morning’s message comes from two sources. Indirectly, it comes from this morning’s gospel reading, as Jesus says: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Now that’s an old pastor’s trick; when I can’t think of a clever title for the sermon, and Kathy really wants to finish the bulletin, I will take the sermon title from one of the scriptures. Every pastor does this. I always want to find something clever and insightful, but sometimes the scripture offers a better way. That’s the indirect answer.
The direct answer is this: “Father Forgive” is also inscribed upon the back wall of St. Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry, England. That is, it’s the wall behind where the altar was located. Coventry Cathedral was built between the late 1300s and early 1400s. It was one of the largest and finest medieval cathedrals in all of England. Was. Past tense.
In the early 20th century, Coventry became the center of the automotive industry. Engines were made there; cars were assembled there. This made Coventry a high-value target for German bombers during World War II. On the night of November 14th, 1940, Coventry was the target of a massive German bombing raid. Coventry Cathedral was hit with incendiary bombs. The wooden timbers of the roof caught fire and most of the structure burned, but the outer walls remained standing. You can still visit the ruins of Coventry Cathedral; I saw it about twenty years ago. More on that, later.
The words “Father Forgive” were carved into the back wall of Coventry Cathedral shortly after that raid:
Shortly after the destruction, the cathedral stonemason, Jock Forbes, noticed that two of the charred medieval roof timbers had fallen in the shape of a cross. He set them up in the ruins where they were later placed on an altar of rubble with the moving words ‘Father Forgive’ inscribed on the Sanctuary wall. Another cross was fashioned from three medieval nails by local priest, the Revd Arthur Wales. The Cross of Nails has become the symbol of Coventry’s ministry of reconciliation.
That is truly remarkable! In the midst of the most destructive war this world has ever seen, there was a call for forgiveness! While the war was still going on! And it was a call for forgiveness for all! It didn’t say, “Father, forgive them.” It doesn’t suggest that one side was the aggressor and the other side was righteous. It simply says, “Father Forgive.” It is a tacit acknowledgement that we all need forgiveness. No one is innocent.
This is the burnt cross where the original altar stood.
Today we celebrate Christ the King Sunday; we celebrate the Lordship of Jesus. Our gospel lesson shows us that this is no ordinary kingship. Jesus is a king who saves us from sin; he does this through a painful, humiliating death. We see this in the gospel lesson and we also see that most of the people in this story don’t understand the nature of Jesus’ kingship.
Jesus was born into divided community. The Jews were being oppressed by the Roman Empire; they believed that God would deliver them from Roman oppression. They believed that God would fulfill the covenant by sending a great military leader, another David, to drive the Romans out. In other words, the people believed that God would send them a king in the worldly sense, a king that would have the same sort of powers that other kings had—vast wealth and a mighty army. Jesus didn’t offer those things. He wasn’t that kind of king.
The Roman soldiers who carried out the crucifixion knew what the Jewish people expected, so they mocked Jesus. They said to him, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” And they carved an inscription over Jesus’ head, “This is the King of the Jews.” But this king didn’t save himself, he offered himself up for crucifixion. One of the crucified criminals also taunts Jesus: “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
One of the recurring questions, throughout the gospels, is this: Why couldn’t people see that Jesus was the Messiah? Think of all the stories in which the disciples—the men who have been following Jesus around the Galilee, the men who have been witnessed the miracles, the healings, the feedings—do not recognize that they are in the presence of the Messiah.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that Roman soldiers don’t recognize the presence of the king of kings, the lord of lords. Perhaps it’s no surprise that one of the crucified criminals doesn’t recognize the Messiah on the cross. They expected a king who ruled according to the principles of the world as they understood it. It’s worth mentioning that Jesus came into a world that was fixated on honor—family honor and personal honor. Every wrong, every insult had to be addressed and avenged. Violence had to be met with violence. The cycle always repeated itself. The people of Judea expected a Messiah that would avenge their shame, a Messiah that would meet Roman violence and oppression with holy violence to restore what had been lost. God chose to do something different.
And what about us? Do we recognize the reign of Christ in our daily lives? The Gospel of Luke is very critical of the use of money and the pursuit of wealth. Do we proclaim the lordship of Christ when we buy a bigger house or a fancy, new car? Do we proclaim the risen Christ when we get up before dawn on Black Friday so that we can get the best bargains when we shop for Christmas presents? Do we announce the kingdom of God when we say hurtful things to one another? Or, in doing any of these things, are we really proclaiming the world as it is?
Building the kingdom of God is a monumental task. The pleasures of the world are seductive. At the same time, the brokenness of the world wears all of us down. We are all tempted to seek comfort in the things of the world, even when we know that these comforts can never last. We know that we are called to share in Christ’s reconciling work on earth, yet we shrink from the tasks. There is so much work to do that we don’t know where to begin. And you know what? We like a lot of the things of this world; we’re not quick to let go of our stuff.
Jesus offers us a really easy place to start as we work to build the kingdom of God. Jesus says, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Jesus asks for forgiveness for those who have crucified him and those who are taunting him. He forgives them. We affirm this every time we say the Lord’s Prayer. Yet it always seems easier for Jesus than it does for us. How many of us are holding on to old hurts? Sometimes, when a relationship has ended or a person has passed away, the hurt is all we have to hold on to. Pain and anger are also things of the world as it is. But forgiveness is possible, even in the midst of death, destruction, and war.
The man who carved the words “Father Forgive” in the wall of Coventry Cathedral made a bold proclamation of the reign of Christ! In the midst of war, he preached God’s peace; he proclaimed the God who offers forgiveness; he proclaimed that we all need forgiveness. In the same way, this table reminds us that we all need forgiveness and it reminds us that we must follow Christ in offering forgiveness. This is the king who is crucified and whose reign is pronounced on the cross. We can do this.
The story of Coventry Cathedral doesn’t end with the words “Father Forgive” being carved into the ruined wall of the sanctuary. The very next day, it was decided that the cathedral would be rebuilt after the war. In 1950 there was a contest and architects from around the world submitted designs. The winning entry was a completely modern structure, but it has some exterior walls that are linked to the ruins of the medieval structure.
This is Coventry Cathedral as it appears today. The ruined cathedral is on the left;
the original spire is still intact. The ruin is linked to the newer structure on the right.
Twenty-two years ago my family and I visited Scotland and England. While we were there we toured Coventry Cathedral. It is a truly amazing place. One of the most important sections inside the new cathedral is the Reconciliation Chapel. When our tour guide was telling us about the Chapel, another tour group was coming toward us. As the other tour group drew closer, we could hear the other tour guide speaking—in German! A group of German tourists was there to visit Coventry Cathedral and see the Reconciliation Chapel. Forgiveness is real. Reconciliation is real. Christ is King! Thanks be to God. Amen!
The interior of Coventry Cathedral.
Now, Beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that Christ is King; that Christ rules over all nations and principalities. Remember, too, that peace and reconciliation come in and through Christ. So look for the ways that you can be agents of reconciliation. Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. This is the truth and the love in which we were created. Go forth and live fully and abundantly into that love. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!