Here’s a lightly edited version of a recent sermon from Genesis 16.
There’s something powerful about being seen. This is especially true when you are used to not being seen; when you’ve been un-seen for so long that you are no longer surprised when people don’t see you. On Friday, our family joined some of you at the vigil for those murdered in Georgia last week. Because the event was led by Asian American women, each speaker intentionally spoke to the experiences shared by many, if not all, of these women. If was as if these leaders wanted to make it abundantly clear to their peers, you are seen. In all of the hidden and overlooked particularities of your specific lives, we see you. You are not invisible. There’s something powerful about being seen.
One of the many things I love about Jesus is the way he sees the women and men, girls and boys who others look past: the woman drawing water in the midday sun, the man suffering from leprosy, the woman anointing his feet, the children running to his side. Those who had been commodified, generalized, and invsibilized were, in the eyes of Jesus, rendered clearly in their full God-given humanity. Jesus sees and our Genesis passage reminds us that God has always seen. The enslaved Hagar escaped with her in-utero child into the desert. In Genesis 16, we find that her life changed when Hagar learned that God saw her.
It is a terrible thing to be systematically overlooked: to find your voice unrepresented, your body caricatured, your history erased, your agency stolen, your safety dispensed with. Every one of us has known at least occasional moments of invisibility. Others of you have lived lifetimes punching your way through the weighted veil held over your bodies by the hands of white supremacy and misogyny.
Hagar’s wilderness experience speaks a word into this reality. Enslaved, assaulted, marginalized, exploited, and erased, she flees into the desert, unsure of where she will go. And in this place of extreme desperation, she encounters God. She is seen by God, and her life and the lives of her descendants are forever changed. It is from Hagar’s wilderness encounter that I draw today’s big idea: Those who have been made invisible are sustained by the God-who-sees. Those who have been made invisible are sustained by the God-who-sees. How? How does the simple fact of God seeing us, especially those who’ve not been truly seen, sustain us? We’ll find that, first, knowing that God sees us allows us to tell the truth God reveals. Second, it allows us to we see what God sees. Third, knowing that God sees us allows us to take up the space God gives us.
We are sustained by telling the truth God reveals.
Hagar had been liked to about her life. She had been told in so many ways that she was unimportant, that her value was tied to what she could produce. These lies existed within a larger deceptive ecosystem. Listen to how Sarai describes her reality. The Lord has kept me from having children. Go sleep w/ my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her. (16:2) Ignoring God’s promises about the family she would be blessed with, Sarai responds to her cultural expectations and mistreats Hagar. She responded to the lie that God was the source of her suffering. The fact that neither Sarai nor Abram even dignify Hagar with her name is yet another glimpse of the deceptive culture that Hagar had to navigate.
Cultures of deception and invisibility must rely on lies which are re-imagined as facts. Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, describes our own culture of deception and invisibility as the narrative of racial difference. Built on the lie of racial difference, this narrative places each of us in our arbitrary place on the racial hierarchy.
In 1875 the federal government passed the Page Act, the first restrictive immigration law. Dr. K. Ian Shin writes that it “was designed to prohibit immigrants deemed ‘undesirable’—defined as Chinese ‘coolie’ laborers and prostitutes—from entering the U.S.” About these immigrants from China, Dr. Melissa May Borja says, “They were seen as a racial threat to a pure white America. They were seen as an economic threat to free white labor. They were depicted as a disease threat—a lot of anti-Chinese rhetoric hinged on portraying Chinese people as filthy and disease-ridden. They were also seen as a religious and moral threat as heathens who threatened a Christian America… They were stereotyped as promiscuous, as prostitutes.”
The Page Act was the beginning of a long history in which Asian and Asian American women were overtly sexualized in this country. They became viewed alternatively as submissive objects on which warped desires were projected or as threats to the white American family. This deceiving narrative maps onto how Asian Americans have often been portrayed in this country, as either a model minority used to legitimize the racial status quo or as a “yellow peril” which is a threat to that same status quo. As with many other immigrants of color, the Asian American experience has been one in which people are used until they are no longer needed. It’s an experience with which Hagar was intimately acquainted.
Cultures of deception and invisibility are not logical, but they don’t require the truth to exact their exploitation. Seven years after the Page Act, the government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which banned all immigration from China. Consider, this was the same era as the Civil War during which the country went to war over whether people could be owned. It was during the same era when Jim Crow terror ran rampant through the nation. These racially discriminatory acts were approved by the same people who thought that African American people were biologically relegated to slavery, who imagined Black men as inherently violent, who subjected Black women to sexualized terror. Asian immigrants found out what Black people had long known, that a society built on white supremacy will lie about you, steal from you, and then eliminate you once you’re no longer deemed necessary.
This is the meaning of invisibility. It’s not just the state of being unseen. It’s that this status renders you profoundly vulnerable to the violent whims of white supremacy and misogyny.
Why did it take the massacre in Georgia to wake up so many non-Asian Americans to what Asian Americans have been saying for a long time? Too many of us had accepted the lies and in so doing had allowed people and their experiences to be rendered invisible.
But in the wilderness, Hagar learns to tell God’s truth. She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” (16:13) She encounters the truth. No longer is her reality defined by Sarai and Abram. Her future has been ordered by God. Even the son she carries bears witness to the truth; Ismael means the Lord has heard your misery. She is seen by God and she becomes to only person in the Old Testament to name God: You are the God who sees me. When she first encounters God in the wilderness, she narrates her experience through Sarai’s gaze. After, she views herself and her experience through the presence of God-who-sees-me.
When we understand that God sees us, the truth opens before us. The real truth, about God and about those who’ve been rendered invisible. Since the massacre, many Asian Americans have proclaimed, “We will not be silent.” This is an invitation to all of us. To tell all of God’s revealed truth. That God sees. That you are seen. That nothing can hide us from the loving and liberating gaze of our Creator.
Those who have been made invisible are sustained by the God-who-sees by telling the truth God reveals.
We are sustained by seeing what God sees.
“And he said, ‘Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?’ ‘I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,’ she answered.” (16:8) Hagar has run into the wilderness, away from the deception and invisibility, but what now? She does not know where she will God. She cannot see a way ahead.
What is it that you see right now? Do you see the pandemic, racial injustice, the endless cycle of gun violence? What do you see in your own life?
In the wilderness, Hagar comes to see what God sees. She can return to Sarai and Abram, temporarily, because she understands that the place of bondage has been transformed into a story of generational blessing. The wilderness, for Hagar, is not a place of further deception and invisibility; it becomes the place of God’s surprising provision for a good future.
Let’s admit that this is a hard truth about the wilderness. Our circumstances do not change in the manner and timeliness that we envision for ourselves. I once heard Author Ta-Nehisi Coates describe the reality for most enslaved Black people in this country. He said that they could survey their circumstances, those of their ancestors, and those of their children and see no reason to believe that freedom would ever come. But, he said, these circumstances were not enough to keep these women and men from actively pursuing their own liberation.
When you see what God sees, how you engage with a society that lies about you changes. Having seen what God sees, Hagar can speak to those responsible for lying to her. You saw a slave, but God saw the mother of a nation. You saw a commodity, but God saw one who bears his image. You saw something to dispense with, but God saw someone to entrust his plan to. You saw someone without a name, but God saw someone worthy to name the Creator of all things.
Do you see what God sees? Can you testify to what your God-opening eyes have seen? *They saw a racialized stereotype, but God sees you in the hidden place and loved you to life. They saw a body on which to project their dehumanizing desires, but God sees the hopes, longings, and imagination that could only be carried within your particular heart. They saw you and labeled you with a continent – Asian, African, Latina, but God sees – even if you cannot remember them yourself – the beautiful and indescribably complex particularities of place and people which run through your veins. They saw you but only when they wanted to see you and only how they wanted to see you and given the violence with which they looked at you oftentimes invisibility has felt safer to you, but God sees you – all the time, everywhere, accurately, joyfully. *
The Psalmist’s confession is a testimony to the safety of being seen by the Creator: (139:11-12) If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.
Those who have been made invisible are sustained by the God-who-sees by seeing what God sees.
We are sustained by taking up the space God gives us.
When we know that God sees us, we can tell the truth and see what God sees. But what is the impact? Watch what happens with Hagar. She goes back and, for the rest of the chapter, Sarai is not named. She becomes the only woman in Genesis to whom God promises descendants. So, what is happening. Having been seen by God, Hagar lives into her image of God-bearing nature and takes up the space God has given her. The injustice and suffering which had forced her withdrawal into invisibility is pushed back by her God’s gaze.
How do we, in this particular moment, as a multiracial congregation, take up the space God has given us? To begin with, we bring our full selves to our community. There was an urgent question the early church faced. Did Gentiles have to become culturally Jewish before becoming Christian. The answer, offered clearly and repeatedly, was no! The expectation was that new disciples of Jesus would bring with them all the particularities of their culture. Unfortunately, in many multiracial congregations we have overlooked this mandate. Functionally, we ask people to assimilate to cultural whiteness in order to belong. But this will kill our reconciling community. We need to bring your full self. And every time you do, you make room for someone else’s full self to be welcomed and expressed for the glory of God.
We also bring our full selves when we commit to making racial justice central to our Christian identity. This is not something we opt into or out of; this is central to our identity as the reconciled people of God. There are good reasons that some of us struggle with. Some grew up in homes where the immigrant memory was recent, and the expectation was to keep quiet and focused in order to attain the American Dream. Others of you are exhausted from the fight for racial justice, having placed your bodies on the line time and time again. You’ve shared your stories of trauma one too many times.
Yet the call to live as God’s beloved and reconciled people remains. For some of us, this means committing to speaking out and showing up in ways that tear through the deception and invisibility. For others, especially for some of the Black members of the community, this will mean trusting that others of us will show up and speak out so that you can prioritize rest and healing from the trauma this deceptive and plundering country has inflicted on you.
Finally, we take up the space God gives us by rooting ourselves in the awesome presence of the God-who-sees. I’m struck by the fact that, having met God in the wilderness, Hagar glories more in her encounter with God than in the promises God makes to her. I think this is because it is in worship that we learn to tell the truth and that we come to see what God sees. So, it is also in worship when we discover the space God has given us. A reconciling people who have been called into existence by the God-who-sees will always prioritize our regular, worshipful encounters with God. We know that there is no other way to be sustained in this lying and invisibilizing world.
Those who have been made invisible are sustained by the God-who-sees by taking up the space God gives us.
Today is Palm Sunday. We remember Jesus’ surprising entry into Jerusalem, crowds lining the streets singing his praises, welcoming their Messiah. Here was the one who had seen the children, women, and men who had been overlooked. He heard their voices and their longings. With a look and a word, Jesus tore away the invisibility and the lies. In his sight, these precious image-bearers learned to tell God’s truth, to see what their God saw, and to inhabit the space God called them to.
And now, the One who had made his home among the marginal and overlooked people, was the center of attention. But do not be confused. When Jesus proved a disappointment and a threat, he too was rendered dispensable. He would be misrepresented and mocked, his name would be slandered, and his body slammed to the ground. Already he’d been written off for where he’d come from and criminalized for who he spent his time with. As we make our way through Holy Week, we remember that our Savior was eliminated like so many other unseen and vulnerable people before and after.
And so, we remember too that our hope in this life never comes from what this lying world says about us. Our hope comes from the simple fact that, in our wilderness moments of desperation, God saw us. They tried to lie on you, but God saw you. They tried to diminish you, but God saw you. They tried to extinguish you, but God saw you. They tried to contain and commodify you, but God saw you. They tried to refuse and reject you, but God saw you. From a lonely and forsaken cross, lifted high, the crucified God saw you. The God-who-sees you would not look away from you. Would not overlook you. Would not allow your one precious life to be rendered invisible in his sight.
We join our petition and our praise with the psalmist, “Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God. Do not forget the helpless. Why does the wicked man revile God? Why does he say to himself, ‘He won’t call me to account’? But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted; you consider their grief and take it in hand. The victims commit themselves to you; you are the helper of the fatherless… You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, so that mere earthly mortals will never again strike terror.” (Psalm 10:12-14, 17-18)
Thanks be to God.