Left - Right
Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
14 September 2014, 11:30 (ROYAL ENGINEERS’ MEMORIAL SERVICE)This morning I want to do something I may never get the chance to do again – to ask a cathedral full of soldiers a question!
How many people in the cathedral this morning are left-handed?
And I am going to ask a supplementary question: in the discipline and vital regimentation of a fighting force, how many of you have struggled to be right-handed in some aspect of army life?
In preparing this sermon, I had, of course, absolutely no idea of your response.
Statistically though, about 10% of us are left-handed – so that should be reflected here.
I have started in this way for a number of reasons: we live in a world of amazing variety and yet we think that there is some kind of defining meaning that is real which gives purpose and some sort of cogent pattern to our daily lives.
Yet, I believe that we are all caught up in our limitations that lead us into the confusions, chaos and destructiveness of conflict.
There are some things that can be changed and some things that can’t be.
As soldiers and part of a multi-skilled corps of engineers and tradesmen, your job is to make things happen, logically, practically and efficiently.
Your professional lives have to be focused in this way and ingenuity and creative solutions have to find their way into your strategies and regimes – under the wire!!
Not for you the left-handed shop or website where you can buy left-handed corkscrews, potato peelers and scissors, left-handed watches, sports equipment or musical instruments.
Now I speak as a left-handed person who plays tennis left handed but cricket right, who eats with a knife and fork right-handed but a spoon and fork left!
When I was in the Combined Cadet Force at school, I met my Waterloo on the shooting range where I discovered that I was also left-eyed which meant missing the target (and in fact hitting someone else’s – I even hit the bull) as the hot spent cartridge hit me in the face!!
No wonder the Latin for left-handed is sinister and the French is gauche.
Yet Hebrew is written from right to left like Arabic, and is a left-handed friendly script!
In recent years there has been a lot written about the side of the brain we prefer to use to process information: right-handed people favour the left and left-handed people the right.
And left brained thought is we are told rational, logical and calculative whilst the right brained approach is intuitive, emotional and imaginative.
So do you know which you are?
And how does that make you respond to an ISIS beheading in our news? And not just fundamentalist terrorism what about age-old frontier disputes, such as we see in eastern Ukraine, which erupted in the First World War as nationalism, ethnic identity, feudal claims to power, the concept of democracy led to bloodshed on an unparalleled scale?
Are soldiers meant to have a response to such things?
As critical players in the defence of our nation and its commitment to civilised values based on and formed through Judaism and Christianity, I believe you need to know and commit yourselves to those values which lie beyond the limitations of the battle field and the training ground.
And so I have chosen two passages from the Jewish and Christian scriptures for you today.
Both are real, historical events and both are a challenge to each and every one of us who can only see with one pair of eyes and understand with one brain whether we prefer the right side or the left!!
The Book of Judges deals with the successive generations that had to battle to secure Canaan, a land won for Israel in the book of Joshua. In this passage Gideon, a farmer of the tribe of Manasseh, is called to be a soldier because of Midianite attacks.
From his forces he chose the most daring and vicious, a tiny group to execute a lightning attack. They approach by stealth by night and attack by blowing ram’s horns, breaking jars containing lighted torches – and shouting and charging with drawn swords.
This unconventional, risky and guerrilla-like initiative routed the Midianites who fled – but into the hands of a large force of waiting troops.
So here is a bit of military action from the history of Israel, part of the process of violence and war that is the hallmark of every human generation.
It combines both left-brained and right-brained strategies.
In the Bible, it is recorded as part of God’s perspective on our history and human affairs.
But God is not merely a spectator looking in on his creation but he is also a participator.
Into this world God enters as Jesus, a brother to us all, and in the second reading, he enters Israel’s holy city, Jerusalem as a conquering King.
And he does so not with a horse and chariot but riding a donkey.
This startling and unconventional act makes us ask what sort of King he is; he is certainly not a military leader.
Yet this, says God, is the power and the rule and the values that will truly triumph and bring flourishing and life for all.
Jesus fulfils the prophet Zechariah who wrote:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River (Euphrates) to the ends of the earth.
Zechariah 9: 9 – 10
So how does Jesus enter the world today? Can he really prevail over armaments and munitions, armies and the ways of violence?
Well, God’s victory is not on our terms but rather comes as a gift from beyond the individual understanding we are all limited by.
It is by belonging to the Church, the body of Christ, the family of Jesus, that we gain a new view and a glimpse of God’s perspective. You probably can recognise this straight away in relation to the solidarity and brotherhood of the corps and its units: we don’t live just for ourselves but for one another.
The Church, too, brings out this bond and identity but it does so on a universal scale as an open and inclusive family formed on earth and in heaven. Here is the reality that peace can and will prevail over war, love over selfishness, good over evil and life over death.
That is why Jesus the King enters Jerusalem in triumph on a donkey. Not only was he fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah but he was going to his death, a death that was to conquer fear and the grave itself.
Today is actually Holy Cross Day when the Church celebrates the triumph of the cross, the sign of Christ’s victory over death, a reminder of Jesus’ promise, And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ (John 12:32)
The power of the cross has been recognised in successive generations, for example, back in the 4th century, the historian bishop Eusebius wrote that the Roman Emperor, Constantine, was marching with his army when he looked up to the sun and saw a cross of light above it, and with it the words “in this sign, you will conquer”.
Even the Pharisees recognised something of this irresistible power of love in Jesus when they say at the end of our second reading: You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.
And so this different way of seeing, the world, ourselves, one another and God himself, leads us into a unique and powerful hope.
We do not die eternally but by love we are raised into a new and greater reality. This isn’t right-brained thinking or fantasy; it is the power and truth of love.
Today we remember and honour those killed on operations in Afghanistan and others who have died back home during the past year.
Our lives and our powers are not limitless, no, but within our span of years, God has shared our human experience and redeemed and triumphed in and through the very things that seem to destroy and diminish us.
Whoever we are, left-handed, right-handed, old, young, rich, poor, strong or feeble; we are loved by God, the power that gave us life.
As a military unit, this Corps of Royal Engineers belongs to God’s bigger family that exists in this world and the next.
May this truth give us courage and hope, and make us brave, fearless and loving.
This is the true battle for hearts and minds. Let us thank God for our Corps, its life and its role in building the Kingdom of God.