October 22, 2023 — The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

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In November of 1940 German bombers devastated the manufacturing town of Coventry in central England.  Along with the loss of life and the capacity to continue making vehicles and airplanes for the war effort, the beautiful cathedral was destroyed by the bombing and firestorm that consumed it.  Only the spire and the tracery around the chancel remain standing.

The very next day, while the rubble was still smoking, a stonemason noticed two medieval beams lying across one another in the shape of the cross.  He took the distinctive nails with their three sides and flat heads and fashioned a pectoral cross from them.  In the midst of an ongoing war with violence and hatred escalating, “Provost Dick Howard made a commitment to not seek revenge, but to strive for forgiveness and reconciliation with those responsible.

During the BBC radio broadcast from the Cathedral ruins on Christmas Day 1940 he declared that when the war was over we should work with those who had been enemies ‘to build a kinder, more Christ Child-like world.’

So began the effort to build a new Coventry Cathedral.  Rather than attempting to recreate what had been destroyed, the leadership invited proposals for a modern building, which would represent the mission of reconciliation and forgiveness.  Out of 200 architects, one was chosen whose vision for the new cathedral came to him in a dream-like state.

Among the many beautiful and meaningful elements of the new Cathedral, which was dedicated in 1962, is the stunning 3 ton baptistery, which is carved out of a stone from the hills above Bethlehem.  It was a gift from the Holy Land, coordinated by Palestinian Muslims where it was located, Jewish authorities who coordinated its transport and the Christian community for whom it was gifted.  The stone was an offering from the three Abrahamic faith traditions as a symbol of forgiveness and reconciliation.  It remains a powerful symbol of love over hate.

Are you feeling shattered by hatred, war and violence?  The eruption of killing in Israel and Gaza has devastated many lives and leads many to despair that there will ever be a chance for peace or a resolution to conflict.  The ongoing war in Ukraine is grinding down any hope for a cessation of destruction.  The death toll between warring factions in Sudan has exceeded 9,000 people and the recent message I received from my friend, Bishop Isaac in the Diocese of Ezo mentions the retaliatory murders that continue on a regular basis.

What are the followers of Jesus to do in such circumstances?  How can we respond in ways that bring forth peace and reconciliation?  And why did our Anglican siblings choose to spend their time and energy constructing a huge cathedral when the needs were so great all around them?  How could they even afford it in the midst of post war economic devastation?

Questions about money, land and place have featured prominently in the faith stories of our ancestors.  I think of Moses, whose call from God was to lead the people from slavery and subjugation into freedom in the land of promise.  Over 40 years of wandering, they encountered challenges, reversals and their own doubts and fears along with falling into idolatry of the golden calf and failing to trust God or Moses to fulfill the promise. 

Moses was often exhausted, frustrated, doubtful and ready to give up.  The effort to lead a community through change and displacement into a new place took years of his life.  He often wondered if it was worth it and if this was really what he should be doing.  The only thing that reassured and encouraged him was God’s promise, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

That presence is not just a comforting feeling or an affirmation of our every wish or need.  God is present in God’s mission.  When we are in alignment with God’s call to care for the poor, heal the wounded, free the imprisoned and care for those on the margins, we experience God’s presence.  God’s mission and presence go hand in hand.  And when we allow our hands, to be the hands of Christ in the world, we will have the strength, courage and power to respond faithfully to God’s call.

According to Exodus, Moses was 80 when he led the people out of Egypt and 120 when he died on a hill overlooking the river Jordan into the land of promise.  His final words to the people reminded them of what God had delivered them from and exhorted them to not repeat the oppression they had experienced.  Never forget who you are and whose you are.

Moses never got to see God directly.  The closest he got was an opportunity to watch God’s backside as he passed by.  No one could see God face to face and live.  That changed with Jesus.  In Jesus we encounter God personally and directly.  We know the presence and power of God in the person of Jesus Christ.

We can look to Jesus and his example when we are confused, lost and shattered.  We can hear his voice when we question how we are to respond to the overwhelming circumstances in our own lives and in the world.

For instance, when we debate the role of politics and religion, we can turn to the story in Matthew’s gospel about Jesus’s encounter with two factions who were trying to trip him up.  Of course the argument was about taxes!  Jesus offers a third way to the conundrum of whether or not religious Jews could support an idolatrous Emperor or whether political independents could support their occupiers.  Jesus answers by calling for a small coin as a symbol of the difference in power between all human rulers in comparison with the creator of the universe.  God’s face is upon every living thing.  Great is the majesty of God as the psalmist says.  All that we have comes from God.  God doesn’t need our coins, but God accepts our offering.

Coventry Cathedral is filled with amazing and remarkable works of art and architecture.  The more you learn about the offerings given to create this symbol of reconciliation, the more meaningful the experience is.  Amongst all the towering windows and beautiful art is something that most people overlook.  You have to look down instead of up to observe these very small, round copper insets in the floor.

These are pennies from 1962, the year the cathedral was dedicated.  They have been worn smooth and the face of the monarch is no longer visible.  But they indicate a tradition that was fully restored and embraced by Queen Elizabeth II.  This is the practice of presenting a small purse to needy recipients on Maundy Thursday, the same day on which the monarch was to wash the feet of the poor.  As part of her devotional life, Queen Elizabeth participated in this ritual for all but 3 of the years of her long reign.  She traveled across the country and into Wales and Ireland to do so.

These coins are placed up the center aisle to the altar.  They are a humble and modest reminder for us to offer whatever we have in love for God and neighbor.  The person who installed them knelt down over and over again to place them where they would be walked over and ignored.  They bring to mind the words and actions of Jesus, “A new covenant I give you that you love one another as I have loved you.” 

Our Annual and Capital campaign theme is “Building a Place Where Love Dwells.”  I love Moses’s words to God, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here.”  If God is not with this vision for our future, then we can be content to remain as we are.  It would be a lot easier and less costly.

Instead we are stepping out in faith.  We are leaving the familiar for a future that some of us will not live to see.  We are offering our land, our comfort, our security so that others will live and continue to serve God and neighbor for years to come.  Our new church space will not be in any way as grand as Coventry Cathedral or many of the other church buildings we know.  But we do hope it will reflect a humble and modest commitment to loving God and our community. 

We may not have a baptistery from Bethlehem, but perhaps we should embed some pennies in the floor!

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