In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When I came here on interview five years ago I was asked to do a number of things including preach a sermon. Very weird experience because the congregation was intimidating: the Bishop, the Dean, the other Canons, members of chapter, but weird also because it was a very small congregation. The sermon took place in the middle of the afternoon and there was no one in the quire except those people whose task it was to judge who should be the next precentor of Salisbury. The reading we just heard was the reading I was asked to preach on. I don’t know whether it was selected to provoke a response from the candidates or whether it was simply the one that was set for the nearest Sunday. I remember remarking in the sermon that it is a somewhat curious exercise to ask people who are seeking to be appointed to one of England’s most iconic and influential cathedrals to preach on the text “do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
I haven’t preached on this text since that day. To be honest with you, given the various events of this weekend it’s taken on an even more than usual air of foreboding. Let me tell you what’s on my mind this weekend. One of the other cathedrals with which I have particular connections and bonds of affection is Coventry. One of my best friends was precentor there and Emma and I spent a lot of time in and around the building. Last night marked the 75th anniversary of the fateful night of bombing which destroyed four and a half thousand homes in Coventry, damaged two thirds of the buildings in the city and killed over 500 people. The 14th century cathedral was amongst the buildings completely destroyed. Many of you will have visited the place of course and will know the story well. It is a real life example of what Christ is talking about in today’s gospel reading, about the destruction of physical things, things which may well be beloved, things which hold symbolic and sacramental reality for us. Jesus is of course talking about the temple in Jerusalem, a temple which indeed was destroyed in 70 A.D., around about the time that St Mark was writing his gospel, and so he is writing out of the crushing reality of people who have had what they know, what they rely upon, and what they cherish to help them to know who they are in the world, to be able to orient themselves in relation to each other to God, and to their own self, completely overturned.
Now all of that was already on my mind on Friday when I began to think about this sermon. Then I woke up on Saturday morning and listened to the news. And what was unfolding of course was a story of lives overturned, of the expectations that people have about their security, their safety and their social being, once again completely overturned. People do not expect to go out for a meal in a restaurant and be murdered by a terrorist. People do not expect to go to watch a football match or to listen to a concert or to go to a coffee shop and have somebody walk into the middle of their life and remove it from them. The very foundations of how it is that we define ourselves, and the expectations that we believe we ought to have of our fellow human beings is completely shaken.
How do we navigate through a world in which our fundamental expectations of the way in which we and the rest of society, community, humanity interrelate seem entirely open to renegotiation at a moment’s notice? Where the temple which has stood for centuries can be destroyed. Where a cathedral which represents hope, joy and communion can be bombed out of existence, where our family or friends who’ve nipped out for a bite to eat around the corner can be snuffed out of existence?
Part of it I suppose is to do with our human response and part of it is to do with our understanding of the part which God plays in all of this. Richard Howard who was Dean, or rather Provost, of Coventry during the Second World War had the words ‘Father, Forgive’ carved into the East wall behind the remains of the high altar in the burnt out cathedral and those words are still there now. The requirement to forgive in order to be able to move forward is one of the most profoundly difficult parts of the Christian tradition. I don’t want to forgive people when they’re bad to me. When people write or say unpleasant, unfair, or even libellous and slanderous things about me I don’t want to forgive them. I want to punch them in the face. And those are relatively minor things compared to the sorts of human action that we’ve been thinking about this weekend. But we have to dig deeper. We have to dig deeper into the well of prayer, we have to immerse ourselves in the Scripture, we have to cling to the bread and the wine of the Eucharist, and we have to stare deep into the eyes of our crucified Saviour hanging on the cross saying, ‘Father forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing’. It is you and I whom Christ is forgiving for all the foolish and insensitive and ill-judged as well as the outright callous things that we do to other people, and we are required to try to dig deeply down and find the forgiveness that will enable us to move on.
There is something else carved into Coventry Cathedral. At the west of the nave on the floor set in huge brass letters is the phrase “to the glory of God this Cathedral burned”. That is another extraordinary phrase. Provost Howard was criticised for carving ‘Father, forgive’ on the wall of his destroyed cathedral. How can you pray forgiveness for people who have done this to you, who have killed hundreds of people, who have destroyed your city? Similarly how on earth can you say that the Cathedral burned to the glory of God? I wonder what you would ask the Dean to write on the wall of this Cathedral were it to burn to the ground tonight, were it to be the victim of an act of terrorism this afternoon. “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all be thrown down.”
Part of what Jesus was asking the disciples to do was to live their lives in a way where they were ready for the markers of their security to be challenged. But he was doing much more than that. He was also reminding them that in the end the kingdom God is engaged in is not a kingdom made of bricks and mortar, not a kingdom made of human structures, not a kingdom that can be measured in terms of how tall your spire is or how big your cloister. Not a kingdom that can be measured by the securities which we wrap ourselves in. “No”, says Jesus, the kingdom is very different from that. The kingdom is something that transcends both the good and welcome, and the terrifying and unsettling realities of the world. The kingdom is a kingdom that comes in the middle of “wars and rumours of wars, nation rising against nation, kingdom rising against kingdom, earthquakes and famines.” But the reason that the kingdom can come in the middle of all that is because, as we sung last week on Remembrance Sunday, “his ways are ways of gentleness, and all his paths are peace.” And you can bomb the living daylights out of gentleness and peace, and it is still gentle and it is still peaceful. God’s kingdom is a kingdom where, as the old prayer puts it, “no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, and no strength is known but the power of love.”
We have to dig deeper. That really is what the message of November has always been in the church’s calendar. Saints and souls, war and peace, kingdoms, powers, and above it all, as we will remember next week, Christ the King. Christ who is at his most victorious and kingly when he is naked, beaten, and hanging dying on a cross.
The Cathedral burned to the glory of God because of the reaction that it provoked in the people. Out of a hellish inferno came one of the most profoundly influential and Christ-like messages of forgiveness that this country has ever known. And that response was possible because the kingdom to which we look is constant. As the writer to the letter of the Hebrews puts it in today’s epistle, “he who has promised is faithful.” God is faithful, when our faithfulness is inadequate and faltering and tepid. So when circumstances conspire to mean that our faithfulness to God is pushed to breaking point, God is still faithful to us. And so we can dig deep, deep down to the place where the kingdom grows within our own hearts. we can be inspired by the faint flickerings of that kingdom in the eyes and the hearts of those around us, and God willing, we can begin to carve on the walls of our hearts as well as behind our altars, ‘Father, Forgive’ .