(Meditation by David Finke, for Western Yearly Meeting 8/10/96; Produced here courtesy of the
This Document is on The Quaker Writings Home Page.
We began our time here together learning what it is to be holy persons. I want to continue our
exploration on to the greater concept of being a holy PEOPLE. And altho he had great concern
for individuals, I believe Friend George is better remembered for helping forge us into a People.
His vision was more than of a great number of individual souls to be saved, but rather of a People
to be Gathered. For "Christ had come to teach his People himself"! As I am fond of saying, we
are the Religious Society of Friends, not a random assortment of individual Quakers.
I invite you in these following minutes to consider with me what it is to be a People, with a look
at the Biblical witness in both old and new covenants, and also at our own experience.
Our God is the One who acts in human history, and we are part of the ongoing dealing of God
with humankind. The Bible is a record of the unfolding awareness of how God is seeking to bring
us into peoplehood, and into fellowship with him.
If we would understand "Peoplehood," we must start with understanding "Covenant," (in
Hebrew, "B'rith." )
God begins His covenant with Israel, not by giving laws, but by the concrete fact of deliverance.
You can read in the book of Exodus, with intense drama, how a collection of slaves became truly
a people, in a series of events regularly celebrated to this day. To be a Jew is to recite and
re-enact what happened in God's mighty act of leading them out of the land of Egypt, out of the
house of bondage.
The covenant with Israel is simple, and the foundation is laid when Moses is called to a task which
he routinely protests is much too big for him. He is to tell Pharaoh, in the name of God, "Let my
people go!" -- even tho they are hardly yet a people. Look at what happens in God's call to
Moses in Exodus 6: The LORD first identifies Himself as the one who had appeared to and dealt
with individuals, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He had made an agreement with them, promising
them a land where they had wandered as foreigners. But their descendants have become enslaved,
and God now says:
"I have heard the groaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians have enslaved, and I have
remembered my covenant. So tell the Israelites that I say to them, "I am the LORD; I will rescue
you and set you free from your slavery... I will save you. [And now come the words comprising
the covenant promise:] I will make you my own people, and I will be your God. You will know
that I am the LORD your God when I set you free from slavery." Somehow, tho, the words
don't get through -- the Hebrews are so dispirited that they simply cannot hear it: "their spirit had
been broken by their cruel slavery." So, it is not just the promise, it is the action of God's
deliverance described in the next chapters of Exodus, 6 through 19, which prepares Israel to
understand and accept this covenant with their Deliverer.
Israel becomes a people by understanding and accepting this covenant. Chapter 19 describes a formal making of an agreement, one which thereafter is tragically often broken by Israel -- but never by its initiator, the Loving God, the great "I AM", who will not ignoreus.
Listen how Exodus 19 describes God's dealing with Moses, andthrough him to the Israel whom
he would make into a People, a special people, a people with a mission: The Good News Bible
"The Lord called to [Moses] from the mountain and told him to say to the Israelites, Jacob's descendants: "You saw what I, the LORD, did to the Egyptians and how I carried you as an eagle carries her young on her wings, and brought you here to me. Now, if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own people. The whole earth is mine, but you will be my chosen people, a people dedicated to me alone, and you will serve me as priests."
God then goes on and spells out the rules of the game of how they are to treat not only each
other, but also their neighbors and their animals. The fact, though, which I want us to remember
now are not those details of the Law, but rather that the peoplehood begins in an action of
Liberation and in the offer of a continual relationship with God as Deliverer. Israel is made a
people in being gathered together by God, and being given a promise. Israel is called to service to
the greater world. To be a Holy People is not to be self-contained or self-satisfied, but to be an
instrument for the Liberation of more than self. Yes, there was promise of a piece of real-estate,
and the "Land" of Israel has been a central part of Jewish hope and identity, right up into the
modern era.. But I would observe that the promise given to Abraham has lived on even when
Israel has been in the diaspora; Scattered among the world's people, Jews have remembered who
they were in terms of God's act of deliverance from bondage, and not simply because, for a while,
they owned some property. We can be a People without necessarily having a common
Before I jump ahead to what happens in this Covenant, I want to look at the words in the Biblical
languages which get translated as "People" in our English Bible. Young's Analytical
Concordance, based on the 1611 King James translation, has page after page after page of Old
Testament entries --- 1850 of them, where the word "Am," or "Ammi" is translated as "The
People". This word gets translated only 17times as "nation". "Ammi" is quite distinct from
"Goi", the word that 373 times is translated as "Nation." Jews today would refer to us as the
"Goyim," the non-Jews: Only 11 times is "Goi" rendered as "people," but 142 times the KJV
translators give us "heathen" and 30 times it comes across as "Gentile."
When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, the so-called "Septuagint" version, the usual
rendering of the word "Ammi" for "People" is the Greek word "Laos," from which we get our
word "Laity." When we look at the New Testament, "Laos" appears 143 times as the source for
our English word "People."
Distinct from "Laos" is the word "Ethnos," the usual Greek wordfor "nation." "Ethnos" is also the word for "Gentiles" in the New Testament. Another word, only 4 times translated as "people" is "Demos" -- our root for "democracy." That word simply means a populace. Then there is the word "ochlos," occurring 82 times in the New Testament, the word for "crowd."
If we would understand Peoplehood in the New Testament usage, wecan look at "Laos" as the
word used in Matthew's story of the angel appearing to Joseph, telling him that the son should be
named Jesus, "Because he will save his PEOPLE from their sins." And in Luke's Christmas story,
the angel proclaims that the good news of Jesus will bring great joy to "all the PEOPLE."
I hope this look at words is not all confusing: I simply want to point out that Peoplehood is
different from nation, is different from a crowd, is different from ethnicity. Rather, it is created by
God's action, the initiative of breaking into our human history and creating the mighty fact of
Liberation, of Salvation. To be a people is to be called into Covenant relation of servanthood,
sharing in the transformation of the world into what God has intended for us, all of us.
OK, let's fast-forward ahead a millennium or so since the encounter at Sinai and the establishment
of the Covenant with Israel. What happens when, as so often happened, Israel broke its part of the
contract? The prophet Hosea, reflecting on his own unhappy marriage, finds that Israel has been
like a spouse who becomes a whore: not just an occasional lapse into adultery, but rather
delighting in the practice of "the oldest profession." The covenant given by God with Israel was
as intimate and binding as a marriage relationship. But, even as with Hosea's wife Gomer, Israel
God tells Hosea to get married, even tho his wife will be unfaithful and their children will be just
as bad. "In the same way," God says to and through Hosea, "my people have left me and become
unfaithful." Then, in a powerful symbolism, God tells Hosea what he should name these
children. Remember that the Hebrew word for people is "Ammi"? Well, Hosea is to name his 3rd
child "Lo-Ammi," meaning "NOT MY PEOPLE". And in verse 9 of the first chapter of Hosea,
we read those terrible words of judgment: "Name him Not-My-People because the people of
Israel are not my people, and I am not their God."
How can this be? Has God really abandoned the covenant? What a horrible burden it must have
been for this prophet to hear and proclaim these words! How would we react if we heard a
proclamation that our unfaithfulness had cut us off from the life-giving relationship with God?
One of the things to remember about the prophets in the Old Testament, and perhaps in our time
as well, is that they embody an incredible tension: they must speak the word of judgment, of
doom, "calling a spade a spade" and declaring just how bad things have gotten. But they also
deeply love and care for those who fall under judgment, who after all are their own people!
Furthermore, they are given the word of hope and convey the promise of restoration. Hear,then,
what is given to Hosea to proclaim:
"Now God says to them, "You are not my people," but the day is coming when he will say to them, "You are the children of the Living God!" The people of Judah and the people of Israel will be reunited ... they will grow and prosper in their land... So call your fellow Israelites "God's People" and "Loved by the Lord."
On into the 2nd chapter, the vision unfolds of a renewed covenant that not only wins back the lost
with words and acts of love, but even beyond that to the restoration and tranquillity of all
"At that time I will make a covenant with all the wild animals and birds, so that they will not harm my people. I will also remove all weapons of war from the land all swords and bows, and will let my people live in peace and safety."
Isn't this like Edward Hicks' paintings of the "Peaceable Kingdom"? --indeed a worthy and durable
vision of what God has in store for us.
Hear more of Hosea's magnificent poetry: God says,
"Israel, I will make you my wife; I will be true and faithful; I will show you constant love and mercy and make you mine forever. I will keep my promise and make you mine, and you will acknowledge me as Lord... I will establish my people in the land and make them prosper. I will show love to those who were called "Unloved," and to those who were called ["Lo-Ammi"] Not-My-People, I will say, "You are my people," and they will answer, "You are our God."
Yes, we can and do break the covenant. But God is bigger and more gracious than our failures.
And as the Old Testament unfolds, we find a vision given to Jeremiah, where we no longer have
to look at the written record of God's covenant and ordinances, to know his Will for our lives as a
people. What wonderful words of hope are here, and how close this must be to the experience we
have as Friends where the Teacher speaks directly to our inmost selves:
The Lord Says, "The time is coming when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the old covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and led them out of Egypt. Although I was like a husband to them, they did not keep that covenant. The new covenant that I will make with the people of Israel will be this: I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. None of them will have to teach his fellow countryman to know the Lord, because all will know me, from the least to the greatest. I will forgive their sins and I will no longer remember their wrongs. I, the Lord, have spoken. [Jeremiah 31:31-34.]
Remember, this is a promise given to a PEOPLE, whose destiny is bound together, who
collectively can do terrible things or who can be conveyers of grace and redemption.
May we set aside an examination of Scripture for a few moments? I want to ask how we believe
a collection of individuals becomes a People, or how they express their Peoplehood, just in strictly
sociological terms. Ask yourselves, now and as we go into our smaller groups, where you see
persons acting as a People. Here's a few that come to my mind:
Anthropologists sometimes define a group in terms of who eats together. People at the same table
can be "on the inside" against which they perceive themselves as different from the outsiders, who
don't share the same tastes, rituals, customs, and taboos. We often see this in a family: we don't
have to agree with or even like each other to sit at the same table. Somehow, breaking bread
together is one of the ways we mark being a people.
Well, then, there is geography -- living within the same territory. This is tricky, tho, because so
often we see different groups of People believing that THAT land is THEIRS, and the claims
overlap and conflict. The results of acting on such claims can be monumentally destructive;
leading simply to genocide, "ethnic cleansing." Of course it's been easy to see this dynamic in the
former Yugoslavia or northern Ireland or South Africa or Rwanda or Burundi. It's so easy, also,
to forget how European-Americans' sense of a "manifest destiny" to possess this very state,
named for Indians, in which we meet, resulted in violently driving out the former inhabitants. As I
suggested before, when Israel has equated its Peoplehood with its political territorial claims, the
results have not been pretty.
Well, what about Blood lines? Isn't that a way that "People" have defined themselves -- who is
related to whom by descent and marriage? Some caution definitely must be offered on this score:
What happened when the German "Volk" tried to define genuine German identity in terms of
ancestry? What horrible suffering has resulted in the attempt to enforce the myth of "racial
purity" -- either in the Third Reich or in America's history of racial relations! Surely a People can
be more than a clan or a tribe. But the temptation to define "The People" as those created in our
image rather than God's image is a constant threat to humanity.
I may risk offense to suggest that in much of Quakerism, historically, we have understood
ourselves in just such a way, in terms of genetic rather than spiritual ancestry, but my critique cuts
across our theological divisions. It was often remarked that the conversation outside sessions of
the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting usually gravitated to genealogical recollections, exploring the
fascination of how people were cousins to each other in the great in-breeding. But, within this
Yearly Meeting, I heard a lament that a major challenge faced in our Christian Ministry and
Evangelism was how do we incorporate those members among us who are not blood relatives?!
Is common belief or ideology a measure of Peoplehood? Totalitarian societies have certainly tried
to enforce this. But the American political experiment (always a fragile endeavor) attempts to
proclaim that minorities of any kind are just as much a part of the Body Politic, with important
rights and dignities, as those who predominate in a majority. To be American is not to require a
particular Orthodoxy. And I think it's still an open question as to how well the Society of Friends
can live, in a sense of united Peoplehood, with the many kinds of verbal expressions of our faith
Let me put some of this gloom behind me and suggest ways I believe Peoplehood has been
created and experienced in our whole religious history, in the continuum from Jewish to the Early
Church to Quaker.
First, I think a common experience of suffering can weld disparate elements into a sense of
solidarity and common identity. It's sometimes been speculated that an invasion from Mars would
do wonders in creating a united human race! More realistically, tho, would be to see what the
experience of war has done, both to combatants and to pacifist objectors. I believe the same
dynamics keep a strange company together in the American Legion, as those who formed the
American Friends Service Committee, across our separate heritages, based in their having given
wartime relief. And just several days ago I was with my parents in a town that experienced
17inches of rain in one day: in "pulling together" they are finding community within what had
only been neighborhoods.
Back to the Biblical times, it is obvious that both the experience of slavery and the wanderings in
a desert for 40 years created a Jewish identity out of what had been 12 different tribes. Certainly
the persecution endured by both the apostolic Church and the early Quaker movement molded
their sense of who they were and what God was calling them to be. As Curt Shaw told us the
other night, "God uses hardship to lead a people."
More hopefully, I find that a common experience of Liberation creates a People, and I really hope
you can explore this in your smaller groups:
(1.) We've dwelt on how the Exodus experience created the People of Israel --more durable than
the Land of Israel -- bound to their Liberator in an ongoing covenant. And later, both their
suffering in and their return from Babylon helped forge their identity as a People.
(2.) The Christian story, which I want to come back to, is one of finding Liberation not only out
of a personal sense of failure and inadequacy, but also from the social boundaries and distinctions
of their day, identical to those we are challenged with. Hear this word of emancipation from Paul
telling the Galatians:
"It is through faith that all of you are God's [children] in union with Christ Jesus. You were
baptized into union with Christ, and now you are clothed, so to speak, with the life of Christ
himself. So there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free men,
between men and women; you are all one in union with Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then
you are the descendants of Abraham and will receive what God has promised."
(3.) I believe that in responding to the new but ancient discoveries of George Fox, the early
Quaker converts became not just convince persons but a vital People: In not yielding to grinding
oppression but continuing to meet joyfully, they showed that the un-holy alliance of Church and
State institutions could not crush them, and thus they found a new identity, based in love and
mutual assistance, nurtured by Christ's own Present Spirit. Out of the many off-beat religious
movements of the time, they endured -- unlike the Ranters who ultimately thought they could
"Get along by going along," doing their own odd-ball individualist thing. But the Quakers knew
they could bethe "Great People to be Gathered", and -- with some notably slow starts -- they
submitted themselves to the discipline of being a corporate body.
(4.) So, let's come to our present -- as the hymn says, "Standing in the living present, memory and
hope between." Dare we think specifically about how these themes move among us, the People
of God gathered as Western Yearly Meeting?
First, we can acknowledge that it's hard, with our glorification of the cult of the individual, to
think in terms of Peoplehood. Even our concept of Salvation tends to be atomistic, fragmented,
one-at-a-time. We "walk in the Garden alone" ... and believe that our encounter with God "none
other has ever known." It simply may be foreign to us to conceive that in the Biblical model, both
judgment and salvation come to The People -- we stand together or we fall together. Can we
hear again our lesson from yesterday, when Darlene Newby emphasized the dimension of a
"beloved Community" in which Christ teaches his people himself, where every life is an invaluable
asset to the greater whole, where the seemingly strange and the marginal, responding to His call,
become vehicles for God's Love? Have we taken to heart last night's message from John Miller,
that in our collective waiting and listening, God will reveal to us the Eternal Spirit that is already
there, who will bring us into unity, indeed Com- unity?
Let us lay aside the lesser things that might only seem to make a People: temptations which are
certainly close at hand. I observe five:
-- to think of ourselves largely in terms of family heritage, and who is related to whom;
-- to experience ourselves in terms of geography, that is, those who are in commuting distance
from Indianapolis, whose first distinction in common was that they were too far to go to
-- to believe that an orthodox creed is what unites us and, in a form of words, will assure
-- to take comfort in being squarely in the solid middle class, with a sense that God has specially
-- to assume that we have one form of worship, in which others should be comfortable because it
is what we are used to.
Please note that I didn't label these factors as evil, but simply lesser things, which can be
distractions to a larger mission.
What if, instead, we affirmed a Vision -- without which, "the People perish"? What would be the
effect of confessing and celebrating that it was given to us to maintain a Vital Center in
Quakerism -- that we would become known as the Friends who didn't fit into one pigeonhole,
who reached loving arms across the gulfs and chasms of the Society of Friends, who always asked
"What bridges am I called to build?" In such a vision, I know for a fact that in our apparent
differences we can learn from each other and enrich the Whole.
For instance, from our Meetings whose worship is primarily based in silent waiting, we can stay
rooted in an immediacy of God's Presence which empowers ministry in the Laos, the whole
People of God. We can be models in outreach and transformation that don't depend on salaried
church workers, beloved tho they be among us.
And, from our Meetings that see themselves as more Evangelical, we can gain a more personal
sense of connectedness with Jesus, the teacher from Galilee, whose resurrected present Power is
more vibrant than some vague sense of an inner light that gets confused with conscience.
But Friends, if we are to carry out our purpose as a Servant People -- the "royal priesthood" and
"holy nation" described in First Peter 2:9 which echoes Exodus 19 -- we must continue to be
"called out of darkness into his own marvelous light." We must humbly acknowledge ANYthing
that we have let divide us, and look to the Resurrection Power to rebuild our Covenant
It pains me to report that, in our Family of Faith, we let racist assumptions -- and unconscious
slights -- and fear of each other -- corrupt our witness. For instance, I have known Hispanic
Friends to be asked "what country do you come from?" when they have always lived here. I have
known Asian Friends to be put down by being told they were not "an American Quaker." I know
that African-American Quakers have been politely treated as guests and visitors, but not assumed
to be central in the ministry and leadership of this Yearly Meeting. And I know that, even as
we've met this week, there were Friends who threatened to boycott worship that might have been
led by one with whom they were not in fellowship -- as though ANY one could come between us
and God's direct ministry in our hearts.
HOWEVER, such blind spots and divisions have never been unknownin the life of the Church.
Nor has God's Grace ever been unavailable to us. Let me then close by the proclamation of
Liberation that Paul sent in his letter to the Friends of the Truth in Ephesus: [Take time to read
and absorb his whole second chapter.] The words that stand out for me are these:
"You Gentiles by birth [that is, all of us non-Jews], rememberthat you were separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, strangers to the covenants of promise.
"But now, in union with Christ Jesus, you who used to be far away, have been brought near...
"For He Himself is our peace, He made one people --he made both groups into one, In his own body, he broke down the dividing wall of hostility.
"Christ has destroyed the enmity. He created one new people in union with himself, in this way making peace. He united them into one, and brought them back to God. "So Christ came and preached the Good News of peace to all -- you who were far away, and you who were near.
"All of us are able to come in the one Spirit into the presence of the Father.
"So then: you are no longer strangers and aliens. You are fellow-citizens with God's people, members of the family of God.
"He is the one who holds the whole building together, and makes itgrow into a sacred temple dedicated to the Lord.
"In union with him, you too are being built together with all the others into a place where God lives through his Spirit."
Friends, let us go out with rejoicing and act on such Good News!