05.07.2017 Preaching Text: “All who believed were together and had all things in common…” (Acts 2:44)
I once asked my father why his family came to this country.
“Lousy farmers, I guess,” he said.
I asked him this because I had done an Internet search of the family name and, remarkably, found a whole slew of information. Somebody had taken the time to thoroughly document the whole clan going back to 1721, the year they immigrated to these shores.
I discovered that the first family member to arrive came from a small town just east of Frankfurt, Germany. His name was Johann Leinbach, a teacher (though quite possibly a lousy farmer, too).
After a brief foray in Philadelphia, the family settled in the thriving metropolis of Oley, PA (a small town near Reading). When I was a kid, my father would point out, with some pride I think, that there were more Leinbachs in the Reading phonebook than Smiths!
In any event, the family became associated with Conrad Weiser (a major religious figure in the area) as well as the Moravians (an influential religious community in pre-Revolutionary America).
Eventually, my forefathers became German Reformed pastors in eastern and central Pennsylvania. As I’ve said, my father, though he himself was not a pastor, was the product of five generations of them. Many if not most of his uncles were pastors. And his mother’s father was a pastor as well. It was the family business.
Years ago, at a time when I was serving a church west of Philadelphia, Linda and I took an excursion to visit some of the churches my ancestors had served.
In the early days, they’d been circuit riders, serving as many as 10 (or more) churches at a time. They’d travel on Sundays by horseback to preach at these small country churches.
But the big cathedral church in the area was at Tulpehocken. It was the prestige pulpit. There my great-great-grandfather, Henry, and following him, his son, my great-grandfather, Thomas Calvin Leinbach (after whom I named) served for decades. (“Calvin,” by the way, stands for John Calvin, the Protestant Reformer).
It’s fascinating to look at their call letters. They were paid mostly in farm supplies, which often included livestock. They were expected to farm their own land in addition to serving the surrounding churches.
One of the overriding images I have of that whole area is its vast, endless cornfields. Then, suddenly, out of nowhere arises the iconic, inevitable church steeple.
In some ways the area remains a testament to our distant past, harkening back to the earliest days of our nation. Amidst its vast cornfields one gets a picture of early America, an era of the “gentleman farmer,” a time when local agrarian communities were bound closely together by family, church, and a shared sense of responsibility in local governance.
Here they lived out the uniquely American idea of the noble freeman, the free, responsible, involved citizen, embodying America’s groundbreaking belief in egalitarianism. (This, of course, sadly and tragically, did not apply to black Americans.)
Neil Postman, author of several books on media, once pointed out that America in the late 1700s was by far the most educated nation on the face of the earth. Its literacy rate exceeded even that of contemporaneous England.
And Philadelphia was its intellectual epicenter, producing a veritable avalanche of learned publications, pamphlets, and books for an eager reading public.
This served a nation that took seriously the idea that every citizen was to be engaged in the workings of society. There was no distinction, in other words, between those who used their minds and those who worked with their hands. They were, in fact, one and the same.
In his book, The Revolt of the Elites, the late Christopher Lasch rejects the currently accepted idea regarding social mobility. His startling conclusion? No such thing as a “class” of people existed in earliest America.
That people were different and had different skills and talents, he argues, was not considered unfair or divisive, much less problematic. The reason, as I say, is simple. No one in early America thought about class distinctions. Or mobility. Everyone was equal already. Everybody had a role to play and everyone had a voice. There was no hierarchy of opinion, no perspective intrinsically superior to another based on one’s class standing or level of education.
Amidst the vast cornfields of early America its citizens stood equal. They gathered in churches, reared families, participated in the governance of their local communities, and shared their ideas freely in the “public square.” This intentioned egalitarianism was celebrated as a refreshing counter to the repressive hierarchies of the Old World they had left behind.
This, of course, was to change dramatically in the mid-19th century as the industrial age came to alter the economic relationship between capital and labor, and thus between citizen and citizen. It resulted in the creation of a new kind of hierarchical class structure, weakening the importance of the egalitarian, self-sustaining, landowning farmer-citizen.
A new class of wealthy elites now ran the show. Over time Americans, increasingly weary of this entitled elite class, a class often defined by heredity, created a meritocratic system in which presumably anybody from any class could enter the ranks of the elites (this was consciously sought by and through “higher education”).
In both cases, however, in the hereditary as well as the meritocratic model, elites were now in charge of a class-conscious society, something anathema to the earliest Americans who had lived and worked and prayed amidst the vast church-dotted cornfields.
Today we are ruled by our elites, both governmental and corporate (the current left and right of American politics), which has effectively eliminated the very attributes that once made this nation unique, and served as a model for the rest of the world.
Acceptable thinking and decision-making is now largely disassociated from the average citizen. The essential role of the local community and its institutions in forming and cultivating virtuous citizens who determine their own destiny has been replaced by decisions made by elite experts and managers living in faraway places.
The once-mediating institutions of America, the church, the family, and one’s own neighborhood, have been subsumed by large multi-national corporations and massive federal bureaucracies, both detached if not indifferent to the local community and its inherent wisdom, morality, and genius.
Describing the earliest Christian communities, the author of Acts 2 writes: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
While it’s generally conceded that few Christian communities sold all their possessions, some did. The larger point, however, is that the early church shared the conviction, as did early America, that all human beings were equal in the sight of God.
The community born of the “body of Christ” is entirely premised on this God-given, existential equality. No matter who we are, no matter what gifts we have, no matter how we make a living, no matter what books we’ve read, or things we’ve made, we are equals. We are equals among equals, together, and in community.
It was this groundbreaking understanding of community that formed the basis of the America our ancestors once knew. And it is to this, with obvious reservations, we somehow must return, with the church reclaiming its historic and vital role in forming genuine community. Amen.
[Postscript: I looked up the Tulpehocken United Church of Christ on the Internet and was most pleased to see that its interim pastor is a black man with a distinct Caribbean lilt!}