Sermon given at Matins on Trinity Sunday 2013
26 May 2013 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open!
On this Trinity Sunday, which has the distinction of being associated with John Peckham, Archbishop of Canterbury in the thirteenth century, we are invited to stand by an open door and peer into heaven. To stand as it were on the threshold, straining to get a glimpse of the glory that awaits us inside.
However, before we do look into that vision of heaven, I want first to go in a very different direction and to speak of the murderous events of Wednesday of this week.
No other language except that of butchery will suffice to describe the killing of Drummer Lee Rigby on the streets of Woolwich in South London. We, like millions of others today, will remember him and his family in our prayers.
But we must say more than that: this was a life taken in the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. In the name of Allah.
So I want to ask how Christians – and all people of good faith – should respond?
But while the events of this week are sharp and pressing on our minds, by way of perspective I first would first like you to cast your minds back to the summer of 2011.
In a sermon of July that year, I drew attention to two incidents which happened that week and have a direct bearing on how we might respond.
The first was this: an episode lasting a little under ten years came to an end with the execution of a man in Texas. After a nine-year wait, having seen 208 others go before him, it was finally his turn. He had murdered two men, and a third survived with serious injuries after pretending to be dead.
The astonishing thing is that what had kept him alive for so long was a campaign mounted by the victim who survived, who petitioned for the commutation of the death penalty to life imprisonment. This supreme act of forgiveness arose out of the victim’s faith in God: ‘This campaign’, he said, ‘is all about passion, forgiveness, tolerance and healing. We should not stay in the past, we must move forward’.
But now let me tell you their names and a little about them.
The man on death row was Mark Stroman, a Christian, white supremacist who was enraged by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and went on a rampage against Muslims.
And what of his victims? Vashdev Patel was an immigrant from India and a Hindhu. Wasqar Hasan, a Muslim from Pakistan. Rais Bhuyian, a Bangladeshi-born naturalised US citizen.
It was the Muslim Rais Bhuyian who campaigned against the death penalty to give the families of the victims the opportunity to meet Stroman.
The second incident of that week in July 2011 was the murder by Anders Breivik in Norway of 77 victims, mostly young people.
In an illustration of just how deeply rooted the link between terror and radical Islam is embedded in our psyche was illustrated in the reaction to Breivik’s appalling and murderous rampage.
The initial speculation among news channels was that this was a terrorist attack inspired by Islamic fundamentalism. As the truth emerged of a blond-haired, blue-eyed Christian nationalist, the vocabulary changed: the focus was no longer on a matter of faith – fitting the stereotype of a Muslim jihadist – but on his far-right, neo-Nazi political views.
So I want to frame my comments about how we as Christians might respond to Wednesday’s attack by reiterating that fanatical violence is not the preserve of one religion – Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindhus as well as radical secularists have all been capable of it.
And, secondly, the mainstream community of 2.1 million Muslims has categorically, unreservedly, and overwhelmingly condemned such actions. Such acts are explicitly forbidden in the Holy Q’ran: "Whosoever killeth a human being... it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind." Sura 5: 32.
Linking such violence with Islam per se is no more justified than linking Protestant Christianity with the UVF or Roman Catholicism with the IRA in darkest days of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
So, what might we say, especially on this Trinity Sunday? I want to speak of vision and relationships.
In the Revelation to St John, what comes over most powerfully is the sense of a vision, an insight, a glorious and overwhelming experience of the presence of God. You can’t help but be swept up in the power of the experience:
Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind … Day and night without ceasing they sing, ‘Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.’
This is the inviting, thrilling, enthralling vision of almighty God – a vision of heaven to inspire.
And it is precisely the opposite of this, a lack of common vision, a lack of purpose, a lack of being drawn in to the common good which lies at the root of all political and religious hatred.
And it is developing that vision, against all the distractions and radical voices which can now reach into the minds of waverers, which is so essential in our society. This is the key task of not letting members of our communities be left simply standing on the threshold peering in.
Secondly, one of the primary functions of the doctrine of the Trinity – God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is to remind us of the relational nature of God. This is not a static set of assertions, not a list of creedal statements.
Relating is what God does.
And more than that, we are invited to join in, to relate as well. In the famous icon of the Holy Trinity by Anton Rublev – it is as if Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three persons sat around the table facing us, and we are invited to take our seat on the fourth side, to join in the conversation, to break bread with them, to join fellowship.
Again, it is precisely the lack of such relationality – which implies exchange, challenge, humour, engagement – which allows the internalisation of conflict and the vulnerability to radicalisation of many kinds.
So how should Christians respond to this murderous attack made in the name of Islam?
First of all, we owe ourselves and others a healthy dose of humility in acknowledging that people of all faiths and none are equally capable of extreme violence.
Secondly, without the vision and relationality implicit in the Trinity our society will condemn successive generations to a life standing on the threshold, peering in from the outside, without hope, purpose or future.
And thirdly, as we acknowledge with our Prime Minister that Wednesday was “a betrayal of Islam and of the Muslim communities who give so much to our country” we should pray for our Muslim neighbours; we should be active in offering support when they may feel vulnerable and speak out when they stand condemned.