Sermon Sunday 25th June from Rev Hugh Perry:

Part of King Charles coronation that I watched included the Moderator of the Church of Scotland presenting a Bible to the king.  I thought that was, like many other features of the service, very inclusive. 

After all one of the King’s roles, since Henry the Eighth, is to be head of the Church of England

Nevertheless, it bothered be slightly that a Presbyterian would say something like, these are the only laws you need.  To me the Bible is not a set of rules but a collection of stories that encourage us to prayerfully reflect on human behaviour and the divine influence on that behaviour.  

Like all good stories there are heroes and villains and after reading some of the stories you may want to check under the bed for monsters before you go to sleep at night. 

The lectionary avoids most of the real scary stories, but I have a copy of Phyllis Trible Texts of Terror and Jonathan Kirsch The Harlot By the Side of the Road: The Forbidden Tales Of the Bible, and I have skimmed through both of them.

Today’s readings do not meet the cut for either of those books.  But I suggest that an enterprising journalist could get three front page stories for the Press and an in depth interview on TV One’s ‘Sunday’ for our reading from Genesis.  I could certainly see it as evidence for a School Board in the USA to ban the Bible from the Library.

However, it is important that we read this story every three years because it is part of The Abraham Saga that, not only grounds our faith, but also three of the world’s great faiths.  Furthermore, this particular part of the story is about relationships and ambition so it gives us an opportunity to reflect on the way people behave so we can make ethical and spiritual decisions about that behaviour.

Hagar was Sarah’s slave and whether it was a marital decision for Hagar to provide an heir for Abraham or Abraham just helped himself to a bit on the side, we will never know. 

We live in a time when people have families later in life and surrogacy, with or without controversy, is one of the options that people choose when a woman can’t carry a child.  Of course, that usually involves a clinical procedure and willing participants not the head of the household to have a child by his wife’s slave.

In fact, we assume we don’t have slavery in our society. However, a recent ‘Sunday’ programme explored the conditions and abused employment rights of migrant workers. The word slavery was certainly used, and we were reminded that a man has recently been convicted for slavery.

But reflecting on Hagar’s situation I know a woman who was adopted by a family who physically abused her until they sent her to boarding school.  That was a  relieve from a household that relied on excessive corporal punishment and allowed her to qualify for medical school. 

Like so many people anonymously adopted out as babies she eventually sought her real identity and, not only discovered who her mother was, but found she had a whole family of brothers and sisters. 

Her mother had been a domestic servant and had a child by the head of each household she worked in.  Not terribly different to Hagar’s situation and illustrates that the Bible Stories are about real situations that happen to real people.  Furthermore, my friend’s story tells us those situations don’t just happen a long time ago.

Obviously, my friend and indeed her siblings survived because they were adopted by others.   Probably foster parents that were both good and bad.  Their mother I assume survived by continuing the near slavery of a domestic servant as pregnancy banished her from one household after another.

But we may well wonder how Hagar and Ishmael survived after being abandoned in the wilderness and the ‘good news’ story that helps us was in the Press on the 12th of June. 

The headline was ‘Alive after 40 Days in the Wilderness.’  Of course all sorts of wonderful things happen in the Bible after 40 days or 40 years.  But this was a story about 4 children that not only survived a plane crash in the Amazon but were able to survive in the jungle until they were found. 

The general in charge of the rescue suggested the children were able to survive in the jungle because they were children of the jungle.  They knew what seeds and fruit they could eat and the dangers they must avoid.  However, despite their local knowledge the word miracle comes to mind and, with their parents killed in the plane crash, we could well imagine that they were, like Jesus in his 40 days in the wilderness, ministered to by angels. 

Their story also encourages us to suspect that Hagar as the slave of nomadic shepherds had a similar relationship with the wilderness she lived in.  We are told that God pointed out a well just as God looked after the four children.  All of them knew their wilderness but it was still a miracle they all survived.  

Comparing Bible Stories with modern parallel stories invites us all to take notice of the miracles in our own lives.  We are also challenged to notice the evil in our own world and remind us that it is possible to deliberately or inadvertently be part of dehumanising activities. 

But on a more positive reflection we are challenged to expect disaster to turn into triumph and we should even seek to aid such transformation. 

The Abraham saga is indeed the story of God guiding the journey of a family towards becoming a people of God.  It is also the story of a tribe fumbling their way through nomadic herding towards settled agriculture as God leads them towards the best outcome from each stumble along the way.

It is the founding myth of two great peoples and three of the world great religions.  

Along that journey we have the hard sayings of Jesus which begins with the most troubling verse for peace loving Christians:

‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword’. (Matthew 10:34)

Jesus then goes on to talk about division within families which is even more shocking for good comfortable middle-class Christians.  The idea that a commitment to Christ would divide families seems appalling. 

The reality is that families are divided by faith and ideas.  The story of the dismissal of Hagar and Ishmael shows that there is not only hope in such division, but it is part of the story of human development and migration across the face of the planet.

From an historical perspective, the Temple authority that ruled on behalf of the Roman Empire in Jesus’ time was corrupt and they would react violently to anyone who suggested that they were not representing the true faith in the true God.  That violence had Jesus crucified. 

What would also be true was the fact that within the families of Jesus’ followers some would choose to continue to follow Jesus and others would stay with the traditional temple faith, or the Pharisaic Judaism that replaced it. 

Indeed, there is evidence that, by the time Matthew wrote his gospel, a curse of the Nazarenes was added to synagogue worship.  That was a division between the religious family of Judaism and such divisions would also run through biological families. 

More importantly Jesus’ comments about not bringing peace and causing division among even the closest of relationships points to the need for a loyalty to the total family of all humanity. A loyalty that is greater than even our closest relationships. 

In Christ we are all one and therefore we have loyalties beyond our immediate biological family. 

All systems of human government try to impose an ethical framework that demands greater loyalty to the state rather than families, but governments are themselves human and therefore corruptible. 

Like Abraham, Henry the Eighth and his supporters worried about providing a male heir for the stability of the monarchy and the nation.  But Henry was the self-proclaimed head of the Church in England which by then stressed monogamy as a moral position.  So, he couldn’t be seen to father a son with one of his servants.  Such an heir would be contested, and the swords would come out and pit brother against brother.  Multiple wives like king David and Solomon had was also incompatible with Christian understanding so he simply murdered one wife after another in search of a suitable heir. 

Alas for all misogynists the family infighting and power politics failed to provide a monarch for any length of time, and it was his daughter Elizabeth who finally succeeded to the throne.  

She provided a stable reign and restored the economy by knighting the pirates who plundered the Spanish ships filled with Inca and Aztec gold.

Of course, the Spanish were rightly miffed.  But fog and a soft breeze allowed fire ships to drift amongst the Spanish Armada and change the DNA of the people of coastal towns and offshore islands. 

The journey towards an inclusive humanity is not only long and mysterious but a balance of triumph and tragedy with a sprinkling of miracles along the way.

Along that journey Kings, queens, tyrants, religious organisations, and even democratic elected governments set laws and regulations to guide humanities journey.  But they also get corrupted by the power they hold. 

Therefore, humanity must ground its ultimate values beyond an individual group or society.  That indeed is is one of the core tasks of religion. 

That task involves individuals reflecting on the stories of our scripture and relating those stories to our own stories. In that way our minds are opened to the divine Spirit.  The Spirit, that calls us to oppose actions that limit rather than enhance people’s lives. 

As religious people we are called by such study and reflection to speak out for justice even when doing so goes against loyalty to family, or mates.  We are called by our faith to live our lives in ways that give new life to the marginalised of our world.

As followers of Christ who claim to be both reformed and reforming, we must face the risk of division, even among friends and family, to promote a just society and live God’s Realm into the reality of our world.