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AN ENEMY IN YOUR HOUSEHOLD Gen 21:8-21; Mat 10:24-39
“and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household” Matthew 10:36

A young unmarried couple and their two little children attend a local church and they live in our community. I have got to know them a little He is a qualified teacher and she is a student of accountancy. So far, so normal, you would think. But that’s where normality begins to break down. Although he has taught in the past, the man only does casual labour as and when possible. The woman does not have any living relatives left and she looks sad and reflective if the fact is mentioned. They believe they should be married, as a Christian man and woman with children already should do, but it is not that straightforward. What makes them different? They are asylum seekers from the Ivory Coast. Without proper papers they cannot gain permission to marry in church nor can the man get work that suits his skill and experience. They are intelligent, trilingual and devout, but they have had to flee to this country to find freedom and even to remain alive.

Refugee Facts
I have mentioned this couple because it is very easy to allow sheer numbers and facts to obscure the very real, human lives that lie behind the reality of refugees in today’s world. Friday was the UN world day of refugees and today marks the beginning of Refugee Week as observed in the Methodist Church. Just to put things into perspective here are some basic facts. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was established in 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly. The agency is mandated to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide. Its primary purpose is to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees. It strives to ensure that everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another State, with the option to return home voluntarily, integrate locally or to resettle in a third country. In more than five decades, the agency has helped an estimated 50 million people restart their lives. Today, a staff of around 6,300 people in more than 110 countries continues to help 32.9 million persons.

Family Fall Outs
Family relationships can be very tricky. There's nothing like support from those closest to you but their opposition can be even worse. Dennis Cleary is an American politician who in 2002 was seeking a sixth term in the Connecticut State Assembly. But he got no support from his family. It seems that Dennis had a falling out with his siblings over the handling of their father's estate, and they responded with newspaper adverts and signs on their lawns supporting Dennis' political opponent. Their slogan read: ''We are tired of Dennis. Are you?''

Jesus’ hard sayings
That story is reminiscent of Jesus’ words: “one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” They are part of what are sometimes called Jesus’ hard sayings. They are hard in the sense that they seem harsh and we have to work quite hard to understand how they might fit with our normal image of Jesus. He was actually quoting from Micah chapter 7 in which the prophet laments the breakdown of society in his day. These days our idea of family is much more social. The family is started by a couple who choose each other, fall in love, start a family and get married. (And it is in that order nowadays!) It is the place where we expect social relationships of respect, mutual help and love to be learnt and lived. Family breakdown means the falling apart of social relationships. But that is a modern version of the existence of families. In biblical times the family was primarily an economic unit. Marriages were arranged and children reared in order to provide economic stability and security. When Jesus said that he had come to upset family relationships, he was not referring to emotional or social break-up, but to the redrawing of loyalties which were not always liberating and healthy. Joining the family of Christ was going to be a new way of belonging which might upset the old ways but brought greater freedom.
Abraham’s bad example
We normally think of Abraham as a great example of faith, a forefather of our religion. But, like the rest of us, he was human and fallible. Our OT reading today tells us of a less-than-happy episode in Abraham’s life. God had promised Abraham and Sarah that they would have descendents, even though at the time they were barren. After they waited and nothing happened, Sarah sent her Egyptian serving maid, Hagar, to sleep with Abraham. This was customary in those days, not to do with loving relationships, but to make sure there was someone who could be counted as an heir to the family property. It was an economic arrangement. Ishmael was the child born of that union. Later Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah. With frequent child mortality, it was usual not to celebrate a child’s life until it was 3 years old (about when it was weaned). So on the day when it was clear that Isaac would survive, the rival heir, and his mother were packed off into exile at Sarah’s insistence. They were forcibly displaced.

However, this is where the Bible’s story begins to be different from the cultural context in which these things happened. God’s compassion and faithfulness to his promises would actually be carried out in both of Abraham’s heirs. Isaac would indeed become the way in which God’s original promises to Abraham and Sarah were intended. But Ishmael would also become the father of a nation and God came to Hagar and her son in the desert and provided a way for them to survive. She overcame her despair, they found water in the desert and God was with the boy. He grew up to fend for himself and married a woman from his mother’s own ethnic background. In this way we can see how God overcame the failings of Abraham and Sarah and cared for those who were cast out or made into refugees.

Refugee Week
John East is a worker amongst refugees with the Methodist Church in Lancashire. In a recent report he writes: “Asylum and refugee issues bring emotive thoughts and feelings to the minds of most people. Media coverage especially by some national tabloids, fan the flames of fear and ignorance and some of middle England's Christians may never have met or experienced the richness of working with asylum seekers and refugees — victims of world injustices and regimes of terror and of volatile governments.” (British Methodist Church website)

It may be that one of our initial reactions to refugees is hostile or at least one of suspicion. As a nation we can feel very ambivalent about foreigners because of the trouble and a tiny minority has caused. It is easy both to forget the enormous contribution that immigrants have made to our nation and to turn a blind eye to the incredible suffering that so many have had to escape in their own countries. We need to think more clearly about the different reasons why foreigners come to our shores and not tar them all with the same brush.

The need for Protection
This year’s World Refugee Day focussed on the fundamental need for protection. For some, this means economic security; for others, protection is freedom from violence and persecution. There are millions of refugees who live without material, social and legal protection. Providing protection consists of tangible improvements in the lives of forcibly displaced people – providing food and shelter or legal support. Protection is also about raising awareness. We cannot protect refugees if their plight remains invisible. Protection is a challenge that knows no borders. Neither can it be left to a single agency to provide. There must be engagement at the grassroots level, in local communities, workplaces and online. Only through a global network of supporters can we meet the manifold needs of protection. It is appropriate that we think of these things today when we are invited to the Well to strengthen our relationship and mutual understanding. One of the things the Well does is provide temporary shelter for refugees. Our understanding and support is one way we can respond, in the name of Christ, to this need.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith




Almighty God, send down upon your Church
the riches of your Spirit,
and kindle in those who minister the gospel
your countless gifts of grace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.