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2nd Sunday of Easter 2024b

Old Testament – Psalm 133

New Testament – Acts 4:32-35


The Overview Effect


INTRODUCTION: In the early part of the 1800s, a man named George Rapp arrived in America with 400 followers in tow and enough money to purchase 4,500 acres of land in Butler County, Pennsylvania. 


Originally from Germany, George Rapp and his devotees, like so many other people before them, had fled to America seeking the freedom to practice their faith as they saw fit.


Extremely pietistic, George and his followers believed the second coming of Jesus was imminent and because of that, they sought to build a perfect society in the woods of Pennsylvania that would be worthy of Christ’s return.


And so on February 15, 1805, George Rapp and his disciples formally organized themselves into what they called The Harmony Society. That done, they also then promptly set out to build a town on their newly bought 4,500 acres, which they named, appropriately enough, Harmony.


Advocating lives of celibacy in response to Christ’s expected return, The Harmony Society was also a commune.  Believing there shouldn’t be any private ownership of goods or property, the members of The Harmony Society held everything in common.  


And believe it or not, The Harmony Society actually had a nice little run for about 100 years, eventually growing into a very profitable organization which made various goods such as fine silks, clothing, and wood products – all of which were highly sought after and valued.


In fact, The Harmony Society was so prosperous they had the financial resources to pick up everything and move on two different occasions: the first time to Indiana where they eventually acquired 20,000 acres and then the second time back to Pennsylvania where they landed in an area now known as Ambridge. 


But as is often the case with such groups, with the death of their charismatic leader George in 1847, The Harmony Society started a slow downward spiral that finally came to an end in 1906 when they were forced to close their doors for good because of minimal membership and crushing debt. 


But until that point, The Harmony Society lived communally believing such an existence was ultimately and finally the best expression of God’s coming kingdom.            


ONE: Of course, Christians seeking to live communally, as we all know, has always been a part of the faith to some degree or another over the centuries. 


Apparently, from the church’s earliest days, the sharing of goods among believers was a common motif even then. And as evidence of such a practice, just consider our reading from Acts for today.


Just a few months removed from Jesus’ resurrection and fresh on the heels of Pentecost Sunday, the church in Jerusalem seems to be overflowing with a sense of community and generosity. Or as Acts likes to put it,


“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.


There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”


So from the very beginning of the faith the idea of shared living has always played an important role in Christianity. In response to God’s generous raising of Jesus Christ, those early believers couldn’t help but be generous in return – so much so, they apparently held everything in common.  


TWO: Well such talk, of course, can easily sound a bit out of place for us modern folk, can’t it?


We hear about early Christians living communally and sharing their possessions and it’s only natural for us to become a bit suspicious.      


After all, we live in a culture, rightly so, that values the notion of the individual and places a premium on things like rugged individualism and self-sufficiency. Our heroes are those John Wayne-like types who seem to be able to stand on their own two feet at all times and who are dependent upon no one but themselves. 


It’s the people who have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, so to speak, that we admire and honor. They make their own way in this world and serve as constant reminders that with enough hard work and elbow grease, anyone can make it in this grand nation. 


Every year the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans gives out an award to honor those folks in our country who have persevered and succeeded in life despite facing adversity and trials.


Past winners over the years have included such folks as Hank Aaron, Maya Angelou, Dwight Eisenhower, Carol Burnett, Colin Powell, and even Oprah Winfrey.   


And surely we’re right to recognize and honor such people. 


For through their own perseverance and dogged determination each one of them overcame their own obstacles and challenges to achieve great things. 

THREE: And yet community, being together and working for each other’s well-being, is also pretty important too, right? 


For none of us ever stands entirely alone or is a completely independent, autonomous, self. No. Whether we like it or not, we are also always bound together. Our lives are enmeshed with others and our actions have a ripple effect in the world around us. For both good and ill, we touch and impact the lives of those around us. 


How does that playwright Tony Kushner put it? “The smallest divisible human unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction.” Well, he’s spot on, I think. When it comes to humans, there’s no such thing as just one person, for our lives are always intertwined with others. 


Back in the mid 60s Paul Simon, riffing on that famous John Donne poem, wrote lyrics to a song called I am a Rock. While at first blush the song appears to be about  some person declaring their total independence and self-sufficiency from others (possibly after a failed relationship), upon further reflection it’s hard not to see the song as empty blustering and swaggering - that despite the person’s loud declaration about being totally autonomous and free of other human relationships, he deep down actually knows better. 


Or as the protagonist in the song says at the end of it:


I have my books

And my poetry to protect me

I am shielded in my armor

Hiding in my room safe within my womb

I touch no one and no one touches me

I am a rock I am an island


In the end, despite the difficulties and troubles that come with relationships, well, we simply can’t exist without them. Or maybe it’s better to say we can’t live truly well and fully without them - that minus relationships our lives are impoverished and even malnourished. 


In the end, we simply need each other. Or as someone else has put it: “No life of faith can be lived privately. There must be overflow into the lives of others.” 


FOUR: So many of you might know that seeing the earth from space often has a pretty significant impact on the astronauts who are fortunate enough to behold such a sight. 


For them, seeing the earth hanging in space tends to make them feel incredibly connected to their fellow earthlings, despite the great distance. As you might imagine, staring at the earth while some 250 miles up in space allows one to experience deeply just how fragile and delicate our collective lives really are. 


There is actually a term for what the astronauts experience. It’s called the Overview Effect.


One astronaut, who spent a bunch of time on the International Space Station, described the experience this way:  "From space, I saw Earth not as a collection of nations, but as a single entity with one destiny."


And still another one had this to say:  "The Overview Effect is a profound experience that changes your perspective on the world. From space, you see how interconnected we all are and how important it is to work together."


And finally, "Seeing Earth from space was a powerful experience that made me feel connected to all living things on our planet.”


Well, I hear such statements from people who have seen the earth from 250 miles up in space, or while circling the moon in a tiny craft, and the romantic in me often wonders if the world might not benefit from all of us being shot up into space (even if kicking and screaming!) in order to see the earth from that vantage.


After all, the earth, more so than ever, currently seems to be inundated with people from across all seven continents, who seem more interested in causing problems, than solving them; fomenting divisions, than repairing them; and stoking animosity, than fostering empathy. 


But then, sadly, my Calvinist roots come rushing back to the fore and I am left cynically concluding even viewing the earth from space dangling in all that blackness still probably wouldn’t mean anything to some people. Some people are just too myopic to see the big picture. They would rather see the world burn, I am afraid, than try and heal it.       


CONCLUSION: But just because some people choose to be myopic, that doesn’t mean we have to be, right?


Nope. Like those brothers and sisters of faith who have gone before us, we can remember, “The smallest divisible human unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction.” We can remember that our lives are always enmeshed with other people’s lives and that the actions we take in the world don’t happen in a vacuum. Instead, they ripple out for either good or ill. 


So let us live with grace, love, and charity, my friends. Let us live as if we too have seen the earth from 250 miles up in space and can now appreciate just how fragile all this really is. 


For it is good and pleasant “when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes.”


Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.   

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