Sermon preached on the Second Sunday before Lent (23 February 2014) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean

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Sermon preached on the Second Sunday before Lent (23 February 2014) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean

The Very Reverend David Ison looks at the different ways we approach our lives and concludes that that 'God looks to the good of the whole and sees us as a creation to be loved rather than a problem to be solved'.

Romans 8. 18-25; Matthew 6. 25-34 

Do you tend to be right-brained or left-brained in your approach to life? I’m reading a fascinating book at the moment called The Master and his Emissary, written by Iain McGilchrist a philosopher and neuroscientist, about the relationship between the two sides of the brain, and how they affect the world and the cultures in which we live.

It’s never easy, always a bit of a caricature, to try and summarise a book in a few sentences. That won’t stop me trying! The author sets out evidence as to how the sides of the brain work: the right-hand side, which controls the left side of the body, looks at the whole picture, sees things in context, looks at meaning and value, understands metaphors and poetry, looks and listens rather than speaking.

The left-hand side of the brain controls the right of the body including the right hand of course, and looks at things in their parts rather than as systems in relationship; it works out rules and principles and theories, it classifies and makes boundaries, it’s the focus for much of our use of language, and it’s concerned with grasping and manipulating the world for our benefit.

This sidedness of the brain has developed because both sides have something to offer. To take a very simple example, a bird will use its left brain and right eye to concentrate on the detailed task of picking up seeds and feeding itself, while its right brain and left eye are looking out for rivals, mates, and dangers from predators. The big picture, and the detail: and we need both.

The argument of the book is however that Western society has become too left-brained. Our stress on science and technology has enabled us to dominate and manipulate the world, but at the cost of losing the wider context of the non-human world and our relationships with it.

So, for example, in dealing with a contemporary social question such as climate change and the environment, or indeed the current questions around gay marriage, a left-brain approach will be to find an answer to this particular problem, using scientific evidence, proof texts, analysis and theories, and the left brain will judge any solutions on the basis of how useful and effective they are for me.

Whereas a more right-brain approach will be concerned with relationships, stories, inter-connections between people and with our world, and how what we might do will serve our ultimate values and be for the good of the whole.

In case you’re wondering, I’ve not forgotten that this is a sermon, not a book club meeting. But I got to reflecting on today’s scripture readings from this perspective.

The extract that we had read from chapter 8 of Paul’s letter to the Romans is in the context of Paul reflecting on the human dilemma about sin: that we want to do the right and the good thing, but we find ourselves doing the wrong thing, often without even being aware of it.

Paul speaks of how the solution to our struggle with sin isn’t found through deciding to do better, but through being in relationship with God in Jesus Christ, sharing the sufferings of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead, so that we might live with his life.

And he then goes on in the passage to relate these sufferings to the way in which the whole created world is chafing with frustration against its bondage to decay, groaning as if in labour. He draws the parallel between the world’s agonies and the groans of Christian believers as we await our ultimate salvation.

Paul moves from left-brain thinking – here’s a problem of sin to solve – to right-brain thinking: our problem is part of a much wider context, and God’s work with us is only a part of what God is doing in creation. Our experience of the world focuses on ourselves, but God’s work in Jesus Christ is done for the whole world.

The implication of what Paul says is that Christians should be groaning at the state of the world because we see such a huge incongruity between our desire and our experience. We long to know God, we desire to see him and his justice in our human world. Yet we experience sin and weakness and frustration, and we see so much suffering around us, so many issues and loose ends and broken lives.

But our response to this conflict between true desire and awful experience, says Paul, shouldn’t be to rush in and fix the problem, but to begin by waiting and hoping in God: to listen, to grow, to be changed so we can help change the world.

The gospel reading is even more clearly right-brain in what Jesus has to say about worrying about tomorrow. Lots of people spend lots of time fearful of what tomorrow will bring, many of them with good reason.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols and other church leaders were highlighting last week the failures of our benefits system, based on the evidence of food banks and hungry people.

The Government’s left-brain response is to ignore the evidence that it doesn’t want to hear, and instead set out the reasons why its policy is the right one.

And the government’s ultimate aims may indeed be right: but the suffering caused on the way is not right, and not facing it won’t help those who have to worry about what they will eat today.

When he speaks about not worrying about food and clothing, Jesus isn’t saying that these things don’t matter. But he’s urging us to look beyond the immediate problem to the wider context. And that wider context is that we can’t control everything, that our needs are much simpler than we might prefer to think, and that above all, our lives are to be lived in the context of a relationship with God and the way that God wants us and the world to be. The punch-line of not worrying is Jesus’ call to ‘strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.’

That’s not a call to the poor to have faith and then everything will miraculously be all right for them. It’s a call to all of us, especially those who have more money, power and influence, to stop living in a left-brain ‘let’s solve this particular problem for our own benefit’ way, and instead live our lives in relationship to God and God’s world, including all the people it contains.

If all people lived in accordance with God’s righteousness, then there’d be no need for food banks because we’d share what we had with others. In a more right-brain world, our relationships with one another and with the natural world that sustains us would have a higher priority than they currently do. But if we’re more left-brain about it, then we can close our eyes to the righteous demands of love that God and our neighbours make upon us.

Some years ago I went with group of trainee clergy to the church of St Paul’s in Bristol, in a place where there was much poverty and racism and occasional rioting.

As we came away on the bus, one of them said, I can’t cope with thinking about that place ever again. That’s a good left-brain statement: it doesn’t fit into my world-view, so it doesn’t really exist. What a good job it is that God doesn’t say that about us; that God looks to the good of the whole and sees us as a creation to be loved rather than a problem to be solved.

If our eyes are closed to pain and injustice, then our minds are closed to the hope that God gives us in Jesus Christ. So let’s read the newspapers, hear the uncomfortable news, and sigh and groan over the state of the world, with both sides of our brain. And let’s seek God’s love and righteousness together, until that day when the whole creation, with us as a part of it, obtains the freedom of the glory of the children of God.