As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.
God's word to Abraham; Genesis 17:4-5
Yesterday, July 4, on the occasion of our nation's birthday, the stars and stripes could be seen everywhere, from front lawns to utility poles. National pride has its place, and for many, yesterday was an appropriate day to celebrate our country's heritage and wave the flag.
For the last month, many a nation's flag flew with pride in Brazil as the teams of 32 nations took to the field in hopes of laying claim to the World Cup in soccer. By this evening, those original 32 national teams will be down to four and no longer include the United States. As true during the games of the summer and winter Olympics, during these weeks of the World Cup, for a short period of time, national pride (at times more than exuberant) and a sense of global unity coexist.
While it is human for people to feel national pride, the One God also invites us to look beyond national boundaries, to look past narrow ways by which we are prone to divide ourselves into "we and "they," "us" and "them." The creating, redeeming and empowering God invites us to celebrate our unique identities and at the same time see every other human being on this globe as a sister or brother deserving of the same dignity we seek for ourselves.
The verses above from Genesis recount when God gave Abram (translated as "exalted ancestor") the new name Abraham (which some translate as "ancestor of a multitude"). Today, the mass of humanity descended from Abraham includes people of three great world religions, all of whom lay claim to the patriarch. Adherents of Judaism and Christianity make that assertion through Abraham and Sarah's son Isaac. Muslims make that claim through the son Ishmael, born of Sarah's servant, Hagar. Abraham lived nearly 4,000 years ago, and how sad it is that from the very start, his offspring have distrusted, if not hated, each other so, when God clearly intended both Ishmael's and Isaac's families to be blessed as great nations.
I grew up loving three hymns sung to the familiar melody "Finlandia," a tune from a tone poem by Jean Sibelius. "Be Still, My Soul" and "We Would Be Building" are the two hymns most frequently sung in worship, but there is the third, which the people of the congregation I serve sang last Sunday. Written in 1934 between the two world wars, it was an expression of a hope for lasting peace among all nations. The words of the hymn are a wonderful mix expressing love for one's own nation while recognizing that people in other lands love their country as well.
This is my song, O God of all the nations, a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine.
But other hearts in other lands are beating with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country's skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
O hear my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land for mine.
In the middle of a long weekend of celebration, we witness calls to patriotism and love of country. We reaffirm many wonderful if yet unfulfilled ideals. Most of us claim an allegiance to the United States, but as a nation of immigrants from every country on the globe, are we not in a unique position? Can we not be a shining example of a people who recognize that God's promise to Abraham, that he would father a multitude of nations, is a challenge? Can we not embrace God's vision and dream that all of humanity is one?
The Rev. Ralph S. English is pastor of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Gloversville.