And I remember a movie from a few years ago where a woman who was working as a hotel maid was arguing with a politician who had fallen in love with her. He had discovered she had lied about her name and her work, and he couldn’t understand why she hadn’t told him the truth when they met. She told him, “That wasn’t the first time we met; the first time we met I was cleaning your bathroom.” She had been hidden in plain sight, as overlooked as a towel rack or a set of clothes hangers.
Sadly, stories like theirs aren’t new or novel. In fact, they are among the oldest stories we find in our biblical narrative. Today, in Genesis we meet Hagar, an Egyptian slave woman serving Abram’s wife Sarai, and the mother of Ishmael, but to understand the story we have in chapter 21, we need to go back to an earlier chapter of their lives together.
Listen to these verses from Genesis chapter 16:
Sarai said to Abram, "You see that the LORD has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her." And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram's wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife. He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress….Abram and Sarai, to whom God had promised a blessing of descendants that outnumber the stars in heaven (ch. 15), doubted God’s promises and provision. Instead, they seized an opportunity they saw in front of them to make things turn out theway they wanted by their own actions.
Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.
In Hagar, Sarai saw a young and fertile slave who Abram could take as his wife and who could bear his son. Hagar was nothing more to her than a means to an end; because slaves and their children were property of their masters, Hagar’s childbearing would elevate Sarai and remove the stigma she experienced by being barren.
But Sarai’s carefully laid plan to elevate herself backfired, because it revealed her callousness, and itreduced her, costing her the respect or esteem of Hagar the slave woman. And when Sarai saw that she was no longer respected by Hagar, she despised her even more.
In the next part of the story, while she is in the wilderness, an angel of the Lord appears to Hagar, giving her the first annunciation in Scripture and telling her to name her son Ishmael or “God heard.” Then, she becomes the only person to name God, calling God “A God of seeing.” (16:13)
Knowing she has been both heard and seen by God, that God cares for her needs and values her, she follows the angel’s instructions and returns to her mistress.
When we pick up the story today, the family is celebrating a milestone in Ishmael’s life when Sarai becomes jealous and orders Abram to send the child and his mother away. Their presence is a painful reminder of her former barrenness, and her failure to trust God.
But, instead of the harm intended for her by Abram and Sarai, Hagar experiences the compassion of God first in exodus and now in exile.
This time God doesn’t instruct her to return to her mistress. This time, when God finds her in the wilderness and speaks to her, God remains with her where she is, recalling the divine promise to make her son Ishmael into a great nation. Just as God provides for Israel when they are exiled in Babylon, God provides for Hagar and Ishmael in Paran, recognizing that while they are outside the covenant established with Abram, they are not outside God’s mercy and compassion.
This story prompts me to ask, “Who are the people hidden in plain sight in our lives today?” "Who are the invisible people?"
Is it the man sitting on the median on 74 with the sign that says “homeless” or the women behind the locked doors of the shelter down the street?
What about the people hidden in plain sight in our everyday lives: a cashier at the grocery store or gas station, a server at a restaurant, a receptionist on the other end of the phone?
Who are the people we avoid or dismiss because their very presence awakens our fears or recalls our regrets? What blinds us from seeing the person God created and loves? Are there people with whom we have broken relationships or, perhaps, whole groups of people narrowly defined by political party or race, or whatever label makes them unpopular this morning?
While the good news given to Hagar and Ishmael is that no one is outside of God’s care,
if we, like Sarai, are the ones in power, sending away those who we have named “other”, that good news may sting.
And, if we are like Abram, complicit and submissive, watching as others are shut out, it may convict us in our silence.
Thankfully, God’s love persists for us, too, and God’s mercy and forgiveness is healing balm for those self-inflicted wounds.
Let us pray.
Holy and compassionate God,
Thank you for the wideness of your mercy that is not limited or bound by us.
Thank you for the reach of your love that you find us when we are in the wilderness.
Thank you for the steadfastness of your promises even when we doubt and fear and try to wrestle control from you.
Whether we are in safety and comfort, exodus or exile, may we find our rest in you.
In the name of El-Roi, the God who sees, we pray.