Desmond Tutu, the South African leader, once said, “God’s dream is that you and I and all of us will realize that we are family, that we are made for togetherness, for goodness, and for compassion.”
Yet we human beings have a long way to go before God’s dream becomes reality.
Family dynamics are often complex and those in the bible are no different. Our reading from Genesis is about a family—Father Abraham’s to be exact. Sarah and Abraham are married and, after many years of being without a child together, the couple eventually have a son, Isaac. But Abraham is also married to Sarah’s Egyptian slave-girl, Hagar. Sarah initially initiated the liaison because she was without an heir, but as such things can go swiftly awry, Sarah grew jealous of the foreigner in the household and of the child of that first union, Ishmael. Like so many powerful figures, Sara oppressed Hagar and only treated her as a member of the household when it would best serve Sara’s interests, purposes, and whims.
Think of a time when you might have been the recipient of a power play—caught between two powerful forces, perhaps a boss and another superior, or two ideologies, or even two diagnoses and you feel that you have little say in what happens to you or with members of your department or your family or even your own body. Or perhaps you were the child of divorced parents who, because of their own pain, used you as a pawn in their own drama. Hagar was both a slave and a wife, but entirely subservient to Sarah and Abraham as both slave and 2nd wife.
Now imagine that you have a child. Your status, in the eyes of an ancient social code is somewhat elevated because you have produced an heir, but this heir is only valued again for what he adds to the interests of his parents and not for his own self and identity. He is simply seen as an extension of Sarah and Abraham’s wants, desires, and needs.
When we pick up the story today, Sarah’s child, Isaac, and Hagar’s child, Ishmael, are playing together. What is interesting is that Abraham’s first wife—Sarah—cannot abide the children of this troubled home playing together in the family sandbox. Ishmael is a reminder of Abraham’s liaison, one that was sanctioned initially by Sarah, but has proven no longer convenient to her. As a result of jealousy, spite, power plays, inheritance, and changing desires, Sarah demands that Abraham “cast out” the slave woman and her child, even though Sarah was the one who helped to create the mess in the first place.
Abraham, as the father of Ishmael, is not actually “forced” to cast out his own son, though the text may certainly make it seem that way. Another father, biblical or not, God-fearing or not, might have chosen differently and more lovingly. Remember that Hagar, the Egyptian and foreign-born, is the “other” in this story. Just when Hagar might have attained a more equal status in the household of the Israelite and biblical patriarch Abraham, she is cast out of the family circle as the one who doesn’t “belong” because her presence is no longer convenient or beneficial to Sarah and Abraham.
Likewise, in this text, it appears that God, himself, has approved of this casting out of an inconvenient truth and reminder of Abraham’s paternity. It appears as if God has told Abraham, “Oh don’t worry about sending your son and ex-wife into the desert, I will make a nation of him because he is your progeny.” I am reminded of all the ways that we can imagine God’s voice in order to justify our ways of hiding truth, sanctioning our hurtful decisions or our bad practices, or putting God’s seal of approval on our actions so that we can feel less guilty in the execution of the plans and promises we have already decided upon.
Hagar, the Egyptian and Ishmael, her son, are sent off into the desert by Abraham with meager provisions, just a bit of bread and a skin of water, which God knows won’t last very long in the heat and travails of desert travel. Abraham surely knows this and yet sends her away anyway. In the heat, when the bread has run out and the water in the skin is gone, Hagar places her child in the bushes for shade and walks a good way off because she cannot bear to see her child die in front of her. We are reminded of Jochebed who will later place Moses in a basket set among the waters to avoid Pharaoh’s political decree. Jochebed will weep, as Hagar weeps, as refugee mothers and fathers around the world continue to weep.
On this World Refugee Sunday, with this biblical drama of our spiritual ancestors, we are reminded of those who are forced to flee due to persecution, conflict, and war, but on a larger “family” scale. There are more than 65 million refugees in our world and more than one half of the world’s refugees are children, like Ishmael, under the age of 18. Three fourths are women, like Hagar, and children, like Jesus, whose parents fled with him to Egypt to escape the decree of a powerful Herod who would kill all who would oppose him, including toddlers under age two.
We who may consider ourselves “far off” financially, personally, and politically from persecution may have a great deal of difficulty finding points of commonality or understanding with this story, so I would like us to focus on how and where compassion arises in our hearts. In the Genesis story, a story of beginnings as well, God shows Hagar a well from which her thirst is quenched and her son spared. From where does that well of mercy come —in you? From where does compassion arise and flow like water in your veins? Does it come from having a similar experience? Is it innate like your eye color or hand preference? Is compassion developed thru knowledge of the facts, inconvenient as they may be, and linked to personal stories of hardship and/or triumph? Is the photo of a dead Syrian child lying on the beach necessary to evoke greater compassion or awareness? How does compassion arise in you and how is it nurtured?
Compassion is a spiritual practice that begins in our hearts long before we actually encounter a stranger’s story or a photographer’s provocative photo or even a film documentary. As a spiritual practice, compassion must be nurtured regularly and mobilized to be effective. Our faith has a mandate from God to teach and model compassion. And we, as followers of Jesus, are challenged to nurture our compassion to help change the suffering and despair which we encounter.
Many of you know that I enjoy thrift stores. Besides being economical, one of the things that I enjoy is finding ways to use gently used items again, if not the same way, then in a quirky, unconventional way. It is good for the environment and good for the imagination, both to imagine how the item was once used and how it might be used again with some ingenuity. So yesterday found me sitting out back on the deck mending fabric on a vintage and well-used twin-size thrift store quilt. Now, I am definitely not a seamstress and don’t particularly enjoy stitching. There is no natural ability there. I must have stabbed my finger with the needle multiple times and knotted and broke threads when I meant to stitch a clean line.
Why not just purchase a new quilt you might ask? Certainly, it would have been quicker and much easier to do so. Certainly, I could have afforded it. There were other necessary things to do yesterday, including various chores and such. However, when I choose to sit down and mend something by hand, I am slowed down in a way that is not common to our fast-paced life. Soberly, I am reminded that I am fortunate enough to replace most material items fairly quickly and easily if I choose to do so. Others do not have that choice. With each stitch, dropped or not, I am reminded that for much of the world’s population, a possession like a blanket may be irreplaceable and patches hard to come by. For those who are forced to flee with only the clothes on their backs, a blanket is a luxury, even if it is dirty, worn and thread-bare. In short, I am reminded to consider what it might be like to have this quilt, this blanket, as one of the few possessions I own.
This practice extends to other items as well. As one immigrant recently told me, “In America, you can get just about everything.” But we are not often reminded that many have simply no choice but to make do without, not merely due to poverty but due to war, conflict, power issues, etc. Slowing down and intentionally “making do” or doing without are ways to cultivate compassion before we ever open the newspaper to a photo or encounter the struggling stranger in our midst. To do without in a culture of plenty may be one small way to experience solidarity in prayer with others.
At the Interfaith Iftar that I recently attended with our Muslim sisters and brothers, we learned that Ramadan is a spiritual practice that helps the Muslim community be more compassionate towards the poor. By choosing to fast, to do without, our Muslim friends are physically reminded of what it means to be hungry and to be without sustenance on a regular basis. Today we remember how Hagar and Ishmael knew real thirst in the desert—not simply for bread and water, but also for a place of safety, free from persecution, free from slavery, and free from domestic oppression.
Similarly, in stitching or renewing what may seem to be an item not worth my time or energy, I am drawn to remember how the quilt, being hand-stitched, requires something more than casting off what is inconvenient or inefficient or negligible to me. It is a reminder that compassion often requires more from us than simply our money, many situations are not about American convenience or comfort or primacy, and some relationships must be carefully stitched, patched, and mended again and again, to provide warmth and well-being and safety for all. There are no easy fixes and no shortcuts. Compassion requires something of ourselves to be woven into the fabric of humanity.
The International Rescue Committee has stated that in the last year there has been a dramatic increase in the number of refugees; there are 24 people per minute who are displaced by conflict or persecution. In addition, poorer, less developed nations are hosting over 85% of the world’s refugees offering a well of mercy to some of the world’s most vulnerable people doing more with even less. What role does the Church play in welcoming refugees where its people worship and live in relative peace and security? What role do we play in ensuring that refugees like Hagar, Ishmael, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus find a place today to ride out the storm of violence, conflict, and persecution that endangers them?
Are we aware of what our own faith teaches? Where have we located the well of mercy and compassion in us? And how do we choose to intentionally cultivate that well of mercy so that its waters will flow in the right direction when we encounter the stranger among us?
In his book about the Syrian Refugee crisis called Hope and a Future: The Story of Syrian Refugees, John M.B. Balouziyeh, an attorney based in the Middle East, writes, “The Syrian civil war has divided a nation and triggered the greatest humanitarian tragedy of the 21st century. Syria has been torn apart by sectarianism, a virulent strain whose wanton and widespread destruction that has known no limits. If we fail to act, an entire generation will grow up not knowing human compassion. If we continue to demonstrate indifference to the plight of the Syrian people, a generation of Syrians will normalize violence and indifference to human suffering. The Syrian civil war also gives humanity a chance to act… We can restore human dignity to the victims of the conflict, seeking justice for the needy, defending the fatherless, pleading for widows, visiting the distressed in their trouble. We can undo their heavy burdens, free the oppressed and feed the hungry. We can open the doors of our homes to the poor and vulnerable who have been cast out…The Syrian people are knocking…Do we open the door?”
Sisters and brothers, by whatever spiritual practice you choose, may the well of mercy be deepened in you and in us for the refugees of the world who flee to find a peace that endures.
 International Rescue Committee stats. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IBmUVW43_wE&feature=youtu.be
 International Rescue Committee.
 Balouziyeh, John M.B. Hope and a Future: The Story of Syrian Refugees Vol. 3. (Time Books, 2014-2016). Preface. 16.