Way back in the 8th Century BCE, the prophet Hosea spoke about how God was so angry with the people for their complicity with and practice of idolatry. God went so far as to call the offspring, Lo-Ammi “Not My People”. Sometimes we have felt like Lo-Ammi, cut off from God. Off on our own. Or that God was willfully forsaking us. It’s a lonely place to be. Nothing makes sense. We have a profound feeling that we are alone in this God-forsaken world. And if God exists, we have this feeling that we are not God’s people. And to make it worse, popular Christian media reinforces the message that if we don’t live a pure life as defined by the purity police, then we are not God’s people. We are lo-ammi.
Those who speak for God love to play the “who’s in and who’s out” game. The minute you say, “We’re God’s people”, do we also say that those who don’t believe or act like us are not God’s people? This is the hubris of self-selection. Wars are fought because we think we are God’s people and others aren’t. If you’re God’s people fighting for what is Godly, then it’s easier to do ungodly things like torture, murder or even the kidnapping of 300 Nigerian schoolgirls. Let’s be better than that.
People who have been in exile, people who been on the receiving end of a righteous person’s wrath, find it hard to believe in God. Any talk of cornerstones or pure spiritual milk don’t make a whole lot of sense.
But here’s the good news.
The promise of God is that the exile will end. Once you had not received mercy, now you will receive mercy. There will be mercy and hope and peace and joy. It may come after a time, but just like the people who went to the tomb, there is another reality at work that is begging to be uncovered. It is the way of shalom. It is the road through the wilderness. It is where the rough places are made plain. It is the path of hope and peace.
Once, says Peter, you were Lo-ammi, no people, but now you are Ammi—God’s people. Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Calling someone God’s people, was surely welcome words to a people who had been in exile, who had been excluded, who had been demonized. On May 15th of last year, the governor signed marriage equality into law in Minnesota. Since that time, we have seen hundreds of marriages celebrated in this great state as the recognition of love has expanded. And if that were not enough, judges have in the last year struck down marriage discrimination in Idaho, Texas, Arkansas, Michigan, Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Utah and Oregon…and there is a campaign to make same-sex marriage legal in North Carolina, led by Baptists among others. This is all in the name of recognizing that same gender-loving people are God’s people. And it is gaining acceptance, even among some of the most ardent opponents. Whodathunkit?
“Once you were not a people, now you are God’s people. Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” It reads like an antiphon. Maybe it’s meant to be sung. Laura, can you put that to music?
Back in Peter’s days, being God’s people meant you had to have Jewish heritage. You had to observe all of the 613 laws of Torah. You had to make sacrifices at the temple, sometimes at great cost. It ended up being a pretty exclusive club that got to claim the moniker of God’s people.
Peter dismisses ancestry, lineage, gender, and physical ability to define honor. He redefines grace as God’s free gift, regardless of whether the building block has been rejected. Building upon the metaphors of exodus, return from exile and rebirth God’s grace creates a people that did not previously exist. The lineage is not about birth or nationality or bloodline. It is about grace and it’s available to all. Once you were not a people, now you are God’s people. This inclusive vision is a radical kind of creation. It’s a new thing. Sounds like good news to me. No one is an untouchable. No one is not good enough. No one is the wrong sex, income status, sexual orientation, gender identity. All those whom the world rejected, God has gathered together and said, “you are mine”. “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.”
No matter what your past, your sins, your divergent proclivities, your nagging nebishness, your tendencies toward tension, God accepts you anyway. This is the gift of grace. Once you were no people or worse, the wrong people. Sometimes those who have been rejected wish they could rise to the status of ignored or even this higher status of tolerated. But to the tolerated, God calls you Ammi, God’s own people.
"Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy." I like the translation Clarence Jordan gives us: "The former nobodies are now God’s somebodies; the outcasts are now included in the family."
This renegade Baptist Church is full of outcasts. But we are not outcasts who wallow in our collective despair. We are outcasts who have often chosen to be outcasts so that we can love the outcasts. We are people who have received the mercy of God. Alone, we were no people, we had no community under God, but in this community, we see God’s face shining bright and God saying to all of us, Welcome home. You are somebody here. You practice the way of shalom. Don’t ever let anyone convince you that you are a nobody.
The former nobodies are God’s somebodies. We are God’s people.
The apostle Paul tells us to not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of our minds.
Who are we primarily? We are primarily children of God.
Imagine if people believed they were God’s people. What difference would that make in the world? What if you believed your deepest enemy was one of God’s people, too. How would that change the way you encountered them?
The Good News, sisters and brothers, is that God wants us to received mercy and remember our adoption into God’s holy family.
What if we focused not so much on converting people to our way, but instead focused on serving God by welcoming people to recognize the way of God in hiding. It’s ready to break forth in waves of love, acceptance, challenge and joy. It is the way of mercy. It is the way of shalom, peace. That is what is really important.
Way back in the 80’s I was part of an affinity group that met every Friday afternoon in Granville. We were trying to live in the ways of Shalom. We were perplexed by our country’s war-making in Nicaragua and were considering whether or not to join with others across the country in Civil Disobedience. In Quaker silence, we reflected on our sisters and brothers in Nicaragua and how we might be able to be responsive to their plight.
Tom Burkett put pen to paper and wrote this song to give voice to our hopes and our concept of God. It affirms that we are God’s people.
The fields are standing ready with the harvest of the lord.
The winds of change are blowing o’er the grass.
Still you stand and face each other with the missile and the sword,
Until the judgment day at last shall come to pass.
And yet you are my people I have shared your human lives
While you have walked with me along the dusty trail.
I’ll be standing here beside you in your triumphs and your joy.
And I will not forsake you even when you fail.
You’ve no time to feed the hungry whom you meet along the ay
You’re no time to spare to mend a broken heart
You’re no time to answer questions or to find a better way
But still you stand and calmly say you’ve done your part.
In the fields of Nicaragua children turn to face the sun
And hear the whistle of the bullets in the air
You’re so blind to your own interests that you cannot realize
That is it I who stand to face your rifles there.
The times are always troubled and the load is hard to take,
The way of God is rarely clear to see
It takes a firm and faithful heart to see the message there
To turn the world aside and follow me.