Sermon – Hagar, Ambridge, Church Abuse, Eid Mubarak

If I think back to my grandfather, now long passed away, I have a number of memories. One strikes me in particularly today.

And it was a particular devotion. Almost a religious ritual.

It could be performed at lunchtime or it could be performed in the early evening. But the important thing was that it had to happen every day.

I believe my grandfather may well have had some connection with country living in his youth though he was a city dweller for all the life that I ever knew him to have. But his devotion to an everyday story of country folk was a thing of legend.

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, I refer to the longest running radio soap opera – the Archers, broadcast now on Radio 4.

Actually, it may be the only radio soap opera for all I know – it does not seem to be a particularly crowded field.

It was a part of my grandfather’s life. He listened with a passion.

In the way of families, my own father inherited no love of the Archers and only has to hear the cheery, bouncing signature tune to prompt him to reach for the off switch.

For myself, I have found a good old-fashioned Anglican via media between the respective positions of my immediate forebears. I go through phases with the Archers. I dip in. I dabble.

And the thing that I find if I start to listen to it again after some time away is that all the characters feel familiar and all seem to be doing exactly what they were doing when I was last listening 5 or 10 years before.

I am aware as I turn the pages of scripture this morning  that we are just starting to read again from the soap opera stories of Genesis once again.

I love these stories and love preaching on them when they come around. You had part of Abraham and Sarah’s story last week and this week you get another (and perhaps rather more shocking) glimpse into the life of the patriarchal household.

With the Handmaid’s Tale being serialised on the television at the moment, Hagar’s story seems particularly apposite to be read in church.

On one level, we can read the stories of Genesis at the level of soap opera. One man, two women. Jealousy and revenge. Two boys Isaac and Ishmael. Rivals for all eternity.

And the way we read this stuff has huge implications for the way we think of ourselves in modern times.


For if we see Isaac and Ishmael and their offspring as eternal rivals we will have a view of history that seems almost inevitably to lead to a great clash between Muslims and the Judeo-Christian world. For Isaac is seen as one of the patriarchs of Israel whilst Ishmael has a similar role for the Arab and eventually, consequently, the Muslim peoples. (Ishmael indeed said to have been associated with the construction of the Ka’aba in Mecca).

There is so much about current events that seems to be consistent with that way of reading the story but it won’t do at all.

And one of the things that you’ll find me saying about all these soap opera stories in Genesis is that there’s great wisdom there but they can’t be read at face value.

We must, as we go through them week by week, cultivate a sense of being deeply suspicious of the most obvious meanings of the stories.

What do you want to believe? Do you want to believe that Muslims are eternally destined to be engaged in a deadly rivalry with Jews and Christians?

Is that the only way of reading the text?

I’m 100% sure that it isn’t.

Indeed, my reading of this text this day is almost the exact opposite – for the story of Hagar and Ishmael in Genesis seems to contain within it the divine truth that both Hagar and Ishmael were loved by God too.

The reality of the story is that children of the same household were equally beloved by God.

The Hebrew texts seem on the surface to support the idea that Isaac was more “legitimate” than Ishmael – more deserving of inheriting the promises of God.

(And there’s Arabic text’s promoting the place of Ishmael as Abraham’s firstborn).

Which do you want to be the point of the story – that either Ishmael or Isaac, Isaac or Ishmael should come out of things as top dog?

Or that all the offspring of Abraham were loved and cherished by God.

I rather think right now that matters.

Perhaps it has never mattered more.

The reading from Genesis is not to me a statement about eternal rivalries so much as a reminder that God wants all thirsty children to have water to drink.

And that is what I will have in mind when I wish Muslim friends and neighbours Eid Mubarak – a blessed celebration as the rigours of a midsummer Scottish Ramadan fast come to an end over the next 24 hours.

The trouble with religion though is that it can just seem to be an everyday story of patriarchal folk. A soap opera which seems to repeat endlessly as though patriarchy itself is benign and just the way things are. A theological form of Ambridge in which we happen to live.

The publishing this week of a report on the abuses of a Church of England bishop over decades and the inadequate ways in which that abuse was subsequently dealt with by George Carey and Rowan Williams is a shocking reminder that patriarchy is not a benign state.

Patriarchy is that systemic abuse of power which sees women systemically disadvantaged in societies and organisations in favour of men who are presumed to know best. That way of being church is utterly discredited by the Gibb report this week and reputations of those responsible are rightly in tatters.

We will encounter patriarchal presumptions all over the place as we journey through Genesis over the next few weeks. As we read these stories again this year, let us be open to being prompted, nudged and cajoled by the Spirit of God to seek readings of these texts in which human dignity flourishes, the indiscriminate blessings of God are affirmed and through which we can build a world in which no-one is expendable for the sake of institutions, religious or otherwise.

Such readings are possible.

Right now such readings are necessary.

Our survival, in so many ways, depends on them.

Eid Mubarak.

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