June 25, 2023

Genesis 21:8-21
Matthew 10:24-39

“The God Who Sees You”

I wonder if any of you have watched the 2009 film, “Avatar.” You may remember it from the blue-coloured people – the Na’vi – who are Indigenous to the moon called Pandora. And in the movie, Earth people have arrived on the moon to mine it of a natural resource called “Unobtanium.” As part of their strategy for accessing this valuable resource, the Earth people use advanced technology to give themselves avatars so that they can look like the Na’vi people and interact with them in that way.

Nick and I recently re-watched “Avatar” before watching the 2022 sequel, “Avatar: The Way of Water,” and both are interesting movies that raise questions about land, resources, intercultural relations, and colonization. But the reason I’m mentioning it today is because there is a Na’vi greeting highlighted in the movies which immediately came to mind when I began reflecting on today’s biblical texts.

When Na’vi encounter or greet one another, they gesture with their hand from their forehead, extending one hand down toward the other. They marry this gesture with the phrase “oel ngati kameie” (I see you). And we learn that this is a deep sign of respect for the person being greeted. It means something like, “I see who you really are.”

It is a pivotal moment in the story line when Jake (an Earth person, appearing with the avatar of a Na’vi person) receives this greeting from Neytiri, a Na’vi person who has become a friend. She sees who he really is, and respects him as he is. It is a moment of deep connection and intimacy, and likely why many people (in the years following the first Avatar movie) started to use that phrase “I see you,” as a way of expressing their love, respect, and care for one another.

We only get this one story in the lectionary about Hagar, the slave-girl of Abraham and Sarah, and the mother of Ishmael. But there’s another part of the story that you should read in chapter 16. It’s about Sarah’s idea of having her slave-girl carry a child for her. And it’s about how Hagar gets pregnant by Abraham and then gets really angry at Sarah. The text says that Hagar “looked with contempt” on Sarah.

The text doesn’t really explain her anger, but we can imagine. Maybe it’s because she was essentially raped by an old man at this woman’s request. Maybe it’s because she’s a young woman dealing with being pregnant when she doesn’t want to be. Maybe it’s because the child isn’t going to be hers, but will be taken from her by Sarah as soon as he is born.

But Hagar runs away. It’s the first time she ends up in the wilderness and an angel of the Lord meets her there beside a spring of water. The angel asks Hagar what she is doing there and listens to her answer – that she has run away from her mistress.

Of course, the angel knows that Hagar is pregnant, but also knows that she will have a son, and tells her what his name will be and what kind of life he will lead. The name of the boy is interesting. “Ishmael” means “God hears.” And Hagar’s response to the angel is interesting too. Just as God has named her son, Hagar gives a name to God as well. She says, “You are El-roi” which means “The Living One Who Sees Me.”

In contrast to Hagar’s primary experience of being a slave, a non-person, and simply a vessel for bearing a child for someone else, out in the wilderness she encounters the God of the Universe who sees her, who hears her, and who attends to her.

Reading this story from a contemporary perspective and rooting for Hagar, I find myself hoping for God to lead her away from that family and the sexual exploitation she experienced there. But the angel sends her back with the promise that she will have a multitude of offspring – so many that they cannot be counted. And we know that God’s promise will be fulfilled. Just like Sarah, Hagar will become the mother of a whole People, and Muslim people around the world will recognize her and her son Ishmael as their ancestors.

I suppose it was probably helpful that Hagar went back. She could go through her pregnancy and birth with others around her, strengthened by the assurance of the “God who sees her” that she was not alone.

It isn’t long however, before Hagar finds herself in the wilderness again, this time with her vulnerable little boy as well. Sarah has miraculously managed to conceive and give birth to her own son, and now she doesn’t want Hagar and Ishmael around, dividing Abraham’s attention and possibly his inheritance. So Sarah sends the slave-girl and her baby back into the wilderness to die.

Sarah doesn’t recognize Hagar and Ishmael as people worthy of respect and care, but God does. Once again, God sees Hagar and God hears the baby too. After all, God had named the boy Ishmael, meaning “God hears.” Of course God would hear his cries in the wilderness and come to his rescue.

This morning I’m not going to delve very deeply into the Gospel text. It contains more instructions for the disciples who have been sent out by Jesus as apostles to share the good news and heal and bless the people they encounter. Following up on last Sunday’s text about the mission of the apostles, today’s reading emphasizes that they will encounter many challenges and difficulties on the way.

They will be criticized, challenged, and even face the risks of violence and death. They’re following the Way of Jesus, who himself ended up crucified on a cross, so there is certainly a chance that they will lose their lives too.

Going out on this mission means accepting some risks and making themselves vulnerable, just as Hagar and Ishmael were vulnerable to the dangers they encountered in the wilderness. But in both cases, God spoke to them with words of assurance and hope. Through an angel to Hagar, and through the voice of Jesus to the apostles, God says, “Do not be afraid.”

To Hagar, God said, “I see you. I hear your boy.” To the apostles, God said, “I see you. Even the hairs of your head are all counted.” Think about that for a moment, because God is saying that to you also.

Probably there are some people in your life who know you pretty well. Maybe your spouse. Maybe your best friend. They’re the people who can predict what you’re going to say, who recognize your expressions and understand your moods. They’re the people that you feel comfortable opening up to – sharing your feelings, your fears, and your hopes.

Most of us don’t have a lot of people that we allow to truly see us in that way. It makes us vulnerable, and it requires a lot of trust. And for most of us to feel safe in those most intimate relationships, it needs to go both ways. Mutuality is critical in close friendships and in marriage too. We make ourselves vulnerable when we allow another person to really see us, and that works best when they allow us to see them too.

When it comes to God, the Scriptures tell us that God sees us and knows us so thoroughly that God counts all the hairs on our heads. I think of Psalm 139 in which the psalmist is convinced that God searches him and knows him fully. He writes: “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.”

But our God is not simply watching us like “big brother” with some kind of nefarious intent. God’s desire is to have a mutual relationship with us too. Just as God sees us, and knows us, and loves us deeply, God invites us to see God and know God too.

The incarnation of God in Jesus the Christ is the most wonderful demonstration of God’s desire to be in relationship with us. In Jesus, God reveals God-self to us, showing us what God looks like (not so much in a physical sense), but showing us God’s heart of love – that we might see God as God sees us.

By coming to us in Jesus, God made God’s self vulnerable, trusting us to receive them in love. As a human community, we failed in that regard, violating the trust God had placed in us – betraying, denying, abandoning, and executing Jesus on a cross.

But like the most courageous, faithful, and generous friend, God forgives us and invites us again and again into respectful and loving relationship. We heard it first when Jesus, hanging on the cross, prayed “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” We heard it again when Jesus appeared to his disciples and said, “Peace be with you,” and then when he asked Peter, “Do you love me?” and invited him back into that relationship of love and faithfulness.

No matter where you’re at today, whether you are feeling close to God or quite estranged, whether you have other close relationships in your life or you are feeling quite alone… God is saying to you “I see you,” and God is inviting you to see God too – in Jesus and his love, through the working of the Holy Spirit, and in the least and the lost and the left-out ones of our world today who are God’s beloved too.