Who are you? Who are your people? Who are your kin?
These are questions weâre asked in many different ways every day. Culturally, in the South, âWho are your people?â is an essential question â usually the first question a new person in town, or a new boy or girlfriend is asked.
Think about it. We ask this type of question in so many different ways of just about everyone we meet, that itâs become habit. We assume the person weâre talking to has a family, a place to belong, to talk about, and weâre often taken aback or donât know how to respond if a person says, âI donât know, I was brought up in foster homes,â or âMy family doesnât care about me anymore, I just got out of drug rehab.â
If weâre caring people, we feel for people who find themselves adrift and alone for whatever reason, because that sense of belonging is so important to us as human beings.
You remember the old song, âPeople, people who need people, are the luckiest people in the world.â But if weâre honest, hasnât each one of us has had a time in our lives when we felt completely alone â cut off even from family and friends?
What happens to us when all we see or feel is darkness? What happens to our sense of self if we feel that the darkness is our own fault? What happens when it is our own fault â a bad decision, sin, deliberate selfishness? Thereâs no one there to reach out to.
Have you ever felt that way? Itâs really hard. What do we do? Some despair, others stay wrapped in anger, others hang in with hope. How do we choose?
Lots of questions. These questions may be overwhelming or they may be questions weâve never really thought about, but the mere asking makes us think about some of our more difficult days.
Are they unanswerable questions? Not at all, because all of our readings today give us a reason to hope. All of our readings today give us ways to have relationships with others, even when weâre not kin.
Being part of a family is what each reading today is all about: Godâs family. Paul gives a wonderful definition of how we belong to Godâs family.
âFor you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of adoption. When we cry, âAbba! Father!â it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ â if in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.â
There we have it! None of us ever need to fear being completely alone even if we donât have an earthly family. We all are part of Godâs family. We can cry âAbba!â We can be absolutely sure that, as the spirit of God is within every single one of us, we are brothers and sisters of Christ and heirs of Godâs glory. Paul also reminds us that this family connection doesnât break down when we suffer. Christ suffered â we suffer, but we are not left alone as he was not left alone.
But then we wonder about suffering, donât we? When people get sick or we see that peopleâs suffering is not of their own doing, we often hear things said like, âGod never gives you more than you can handleâ or âThis suffering will make you a stronger person.â
But think about how some folks react to suffering they think is brought on by a personâs bad life choices. A homeless person asks for some change, a single mother with children is getting welfare, a young man whoâs just gotten out of jail canât find a job â thatâs their problem, isnât it? We often hear some folks say, âItâs their own fault,â or âTheyâre lazy,â or âMy hard-earned taxes have been supporting that bum in jail, he doesnât deserve a break.â
If weâre really honest about it, itâs hard to imagine a loving God living in us, calling us children, and yet deliberately giving us something to suffer in order to test us or make us stronger. If weâre honest about it, the homeless and poor and those who have made bad choices are still children of God, our brothers and sisters, and we must be willing to love them and reach out as weâre able.
What Paul shares with us is that God is with every one of us through whatever happens in our human lives, whether we acknowledge Godâs presence or not. Thomas Keating in his teachings on Centering Prayer says that God is present no matter what and waits for us to say yes to that presence. God is a very patient and loving God.
Now we might be thinking that this all sounds too easy, that we donât have to worry about anything but knowing Godâs spirit is within us and weâre all set. Of course, we know better.
The wonderful symbolism found in Jacobâs dream in Genesis gives us a place to start thinking about our responsibility as children of God:
âHe dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!â
What a wonderful dream! Jacob realizes what a powerful message was in that dream and so he set up a pillar â set up an altar â and gave it a name, Bethel, setting that place aside as a holy place. Jacob received his own message from God in that dream, the promise of a family that would reach far and wide, even down through generations. The promise of family was as important then as it is for us today.
Weâre also offered a message in this reading. That ladder connecting heaven and earth is there for us. As those angels are going up and down, connecting humanity to heaven, so we who say we are Jesusâ followers, must be like those angels. We must be people who play a part in connecting the world with heaven by the way we live our lives.
Now that sounds like work, and of course it is. Being human, living in a very human world will have its hard days â lots of them â more, it seems, for some than others. If weâre serious about claiming to be Christian, then we must accept that angelic role.
What it means for us is that what sounds like work is actually our ministry. Each one of us has been given some talent, some gift of personality or ability that we can use as we travel up and down that figurative ladder between heaven and earth. Each of us is called to be a messenger of Godâs love to others. That may be something like speaking to a homeless person, treating that person like the loved child of God he or she is. For some, doing missionary work is their gift. For others, it may be sharing a talent or offering hope to someone with problems. There are certainly millions of ways, each way pleasing to the God who lives within us.
Hard work or easy, whatever our gift, whatever our own suffering may be, we can be sure weâre never alone. Godâs promise is all through both the Old and New Testament, but the way itâs described in Jacobâs dream is especially lovely:
âBehold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you.â
We might look at that land God promises us as eternal life. Here God promises to be with us and keep us. God promises to stay with us until we are with God in eternity. Thatâs a promise and a source of strength for us thatâs as awesome as Jacobâs experience of God was for him.
We are all very fortunate because when someone asks us about our family, we can all say, âMy family is all Godâs people and we have Godâs promise that we will never be alone.â