I recently met in a small group and the story of the tension between Sarah and Hagar was used for opening devotions. It’s an odd story to use if you’re looking for light-hearted optimism to kick off a meeting! But it prompted much conversation. The story speaks to us on a number of levels. Abraham is ordered by his wife, Sarah, to expel Hagar (Sarah’s servant) and Ishmael (Hagar’s son) from the family compound. Never mind that Sarah was the one who suggested that her elderly husband try to make a baby with her maid, Hagar Abe and Sarah’s efforts at procreation (both older than 80!) weren’t very successful so desperate measures were taken. It worked! Old Abraham sired a child with Hagar with the blessing of his wife. Well, sort of. Legally the boy belongs to Sarah since Hagar is her servant. The boy also belongs to Abraham since he is the baby daddy. Though Sarah hopes that this little boy will feel like her own, it is always apparent that Hagar is the mother. When God’s promise to Sarah is finally fulfilled and she holds her own flesh-and-blood child, she wants the other mother/son pair out! Heartbroken, Abraham obeys. Hagar and Ishmael are exiled to the wilderness, refugees from family, home, culture and nation. They must leave everything that is familiar to them behind.
In discussing the story our group shared the ways they related to this refugee duo. One man in his early 40’s had lost his wife to cancer a couple of years before. His grief was still overwhelming. Her absence in his daily routine echoed into his social life. Everywhere he went, he felt like a foreigner. He struggled with a sense of betrayal by God. Why should he lose his beautiful wife to cancer when she wasn’t yet 40? Why would God leave him to raise three small children on his own?
Another group member was preparing to move to a small town in Georgia. It was more her husband’s vision for their retired life than hers. So they were packing up all that was familiar: household goods, friendships, and a sense of belonging. They would be living near family but these relatives viewed the group member’s spirituality with suspicion. She wondered if she and her husband would find a church that nourished their spirits in their new hometown. Anticipating the move, she already felt like a refugee amidst family in Georgia.
One other group member had experienced an injury since we last met. His days revolved around pain management administered out of the palliative care unit of the hospital. A retired doctor, he spoke of the discomfort of being cared for by others after a career as a caretaker. His senses were dulled from pain meds and there was no promise of returning to his routine. He voiced that he felt like a refugee from his former life, a life that gave him the freedom he enjoyed. Continual pain made him a refugee from his own body. He was struggling to adjust to this new life.
The story of poor Hagar and Ishmael struck a chord with our group in surprising ways!
In Genesis 21 we read that the child promised to elderly Abraham and Sarah finally arrives. We witness in this miraculous birth just how powerful God’s promises are! A newborn is delivered to a couple who, according to St. Paul generations later, are “as good as dead.” But there is not the sort of celebration they might have expected. The birth announcement is sandwiched between narratives of tension between members of the family compound. Biblical scholar, Walter Brueggeman, notes that the proclamation of Isaac’s birth is “peculiarly understated.” There is no prolonged jumping for joy. Abraham doesn’t distribute cigars to the towns’ elders. It would be easy to miss this first page in Isaac’s baby book even though God shows up in creative force in the form of a baby boy. Years of anguished waiting evaporate but the story moves forward quickly to ugly jealousy that leads to eviction.
Sometimes the choices we make in the present rob us of joy when good things arrive at our door later. I look at the birth of a little girl this past week. A tiny princess was born to an British Prince who resides now in California. A sort of refugee from his own family or, at least, from their royal way of life, Harry and Meghan announced to the world the joy of Lilibet Diana gracing their family. The international buzz over this wee child cannot melt the tensions that keep Harry an ocean apart from his own kin. Personal and communal sin can make us refugees from our dream of having a happy family life.
We are given a glimpse into the awe that accompanied the miracle birth of Isaac in just two verses (verses 6 and 7). The 90-year-old new mom cries out, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me. Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” The joy bursts forth from those brief words but is short-lived. The text fast-forwards several years to the time of the boy being weaned from his mother. Sarah sees her little boy playing sweetly with his half brother and jealousy wells up within her. Two heirs to her husband’s good name and the other boy is the elder. Ishmael is deserving of the larger portion of her husband’s estate. So the laughter and community feasting dissipate as a distant memory as the older boy and his mother are sent off without a moment’s notice. They quickly run out of food and water and Hagar fears that her young son will die in the desert. Everyone but Sarah values Ishmael who, in fact, is never called by name in this story. We do harm more easily to someone we refuse to name. The young boy, through no fault or power of his own, is cast aside by a heart-broken father who is instructed to do what his envious wife asks of him.
In a previous parish one family had five children. The third child was adopted. He looked different from his four siblings. But what underscored his “otherness” was the fact that his mother would refer to him in conversation by saying, “He’s our adopted son.” She loved him but always set him apart in her own mind and heart. His sense of belonging was continually compromised by a mom who saw him as being different from her biological children. He thrashed his way into adulthood, struggling greatly to claim a healthy sense of identity. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he was the one who lived with his elderly mother in the last years of her life. He was a faithful son who tended to her physical and emotional needs. The earlier lines of genetic demarcation disappeared with each meal he served and load of laundry he folded. As his elderly mother expressed her utter reliance upon him, he was finally able to leave his refugee status behind.
As Christians, we trace our lineage back to the promised son, Isaac. We share that family history with our Jewish brothers and sisters. But remember that God promised Abraham that the exiled boy would be cared for and made into a great nation. Muslims trace their spiritual roots back to Ishmael. We have witnessed how the division between these two sons of Abraham has festered over thousands of years into a bitter hatred. A recent round of peace talks has brought a brief respite from the bombings between Israel and Gaza. Several of us journeyed to the Holy Land in 2017 and are thankful we were able to go when we did. Even then, we felt uncomfortable seeing police holding machine guns at check points that were heavily guarded. They exchanged easy conversation with one another near a gate into the old city of Jerusalem. At first glance they looked at ease. But their fingers were always on triggers and their eyes were always vigilant. The sons of Abraham are still refugees from the peace they both crave because of ancient jealousy and a possessiveness of God’s promised favor.
Our southern border is overrun with refugees seeking asylum from poverty and danger. In recent months tens of thousands of unaccompanied children have crossed from Mexico into the United States. They were sent by desperate parents who would rather be separated from their own offspring than risk losing them to violence in their home countries. We are a nation built on the hard work of refugees but we anguish over how many we can successfully assimilate into our country? Like Ishmael, these children cry out for mercy.
My small group members experienced refugee status in unexpected ways. Sometimes we feel like outsiders in our social groups because of a changed status: divorce, lost job, or a wayward child. A younger generation is learning that BFFs on social media may not amount to much when looking for in-person support. Poverty can isolate one family from another. But then they are blessed with a new sense of belonging when invited to move into their own Habitat house that hundreds of volunteers have built with them. Their nomadic life is exchanged for a home.
In this story of two brothers, God provides water for the outsider. God does for the refugee pair what Abraham cannot do. God brings life out of a hopeless situation and invites us to do the same for others who are excluded. When sin separates us from our dreams, God gives us a future. When our efforts to push through a plan fail, God picks up the broken pieces and fills us with awe. When we relinquish our fierce grip on each day, God blesses us with joy and we live with with renewed wonder.
The Psalmist gives a beautiful insight into the joy that is available to us when our sense of alienation is replaced by God’s generosity. When the Israelites are restored to their own land after a time of wilderness living, they express a joy that flows forth like rainwater gushing through a dry riverbed.
From Psalm 126:
A song of ascents.
1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of[a] Zion,
we were like those who dreamed.[b]
2 Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
God’s promises replace our refugee status with a deep and abiding joy. Hallelujah!
(Sculpture of Abraham’s Farewell to Ishmael is by George Segal, 1987)