Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Report to the Presbytery May 22, 2012

Celebrate John Calvin

First of all I want to say, “Thank you.” In April I used my Continuing Education time and budget to attend a Seminar on the Reformed Tradition sponsored by our Office of the General Assembly. The seminar was in Geneva, Switzerland and included an in-depth study of John Calvin. This was a transformational experience for me, deep in learning and spiritual reflection. We toured, of course, the church where Calvin preached and taught; we had a special tour of the museum of the Reformation, we visited the famous Reformation Wall; we had a special tour of the spectacular archaeological site which is beneath Calvin’s Church. On Sunday we worshiped twice, once in Calvin’s Church where the service is in French, and again in the Auditorium of Calvin, which is owned by the Church of Scotland.

The Geneva of John Calvin was much smaller than today’s Geneva. Calvin’s Geneva was a walled and fortified city, now referred to as Old Town. It is not very large; I walked all around it. John Calvin arrived in Geneva in the 1530s from France. France is only several miles down the road.

I want to share with you two theological reflections. First, I believe in our study of John Calvin we have forgotten the amazing openness and hospitality that motivated him. During the years of Calvin’s ministry in Geneva the population of the city more than doubled. John Calvin and the church leaders in Geneva spent an enormous amount of their time, in day to day practical ministry, dealing with the influx of homeless refugees. Geneva was, under Calvin’s leadership, a Protestant city connected with other Protestant cities in Switzerland. But just a few miles down the road was Roman Catholic France. The Roman Catholic King of France did not tolerate the Protestants. If you are a Protestant in France at that time what do you do? You leave. You leave your home, you leave your crops, and you leave any stuff that you cannot carry on your back or on your little cart. You leave, hopefully before the King’s soldiers arrive in your village. And at least, in this part of France, where do you go? You go to Geneva. Why? Because Geneva under the leadership of John Calvin welcomed you. These thousands of homeless refugees from France were welcome in Geneva. There is a very significant theological lesson here. It is a lesson about hospitality. If you have a good, smart tour guide in Old Town Geneva, she will carefully point out buildings where, in the day of John Calvin, the people literally tore the roof off in order to add several additional floors. In a walled, fortified city there is not a lot of extra land. One way to find space is to build up. We have this idea about John Calvin as being very strict, austere and demanding. In a sense that is all true. But is it true because these strict moral codes were all designed to help all of these people live together in a very small space. Thousands of refugees were rushing to Geneva. What did Geneva do about this? Geneva opened the gates and welcomed them in. Such hospitality is an important legacy of John Calvin. This is our theological heritage.

My second theological insight has to do with John Calvin’s five percent rule. But first, let me describe to you modern Geneva. As you may know the city of Geneva is located at the very end of Lake Geneva. This lake is huge and gorgeous. The end of the lake comes to a sharp point and the Rhone River flows out. The city of Geneva sort of wraps around the end of the Lake and is connected by bridges across the river. On one side of the Lake are all the business district of Geneva, all the United Nations buildings, the World Council of Churches, the airport, the bus station, and most of the hotels, including the John Knox conference center where we stayed. On the other side of the Lake is Old Town and most of the residential suburbs.

During some free time in the city I was walking along the lake front on a gorgeous day. This was on Thursday after we had several days of immersion in the theology of John Calvin. The lake front on both sides is gorgeous, with beautiful gardens, views of the lake filled with sailboats and yachts, and the snow capped Alps in the distance. The lake front on the business side of the city is all luxurious hotels, amazing luxury. I was walking along this lake front and I stopped to look at these two cars. Two cars were parked directly in front of the front door of a very, luxurious hotel. One car was a Bugatti, and the other was a Lamborghini.  In that moment, I had this spiritual rush. I thought to myself, what have we become? Our world is motivated by accumulating wealth, by acquisition, by consumerism, by stuff. Why are we so greedy? I turned around and quickly started walking back toward Old Town. I wanted to get away from this obscene luxury and wealth. I walked across a bridge, through the crowds of people shopping in all the very elite shops, cut up the steep hill onto the old, cobblestone streets of the Old Town and climbed up to Calvin’s Church.

When the city of Geneva was overcrowded with refugees, Calvin had another one of his crazy, revolutionary ideas. He approached some of the established, wealthy business leaders in Geneva. He asked them to make small loans to some of the refugees who had demonstrated a gift for some kind, any kind of business or craft. He asked the wealthy businessmen not to charge more than 5% interest. Calvin’s idea of using money to make money to the Glory of God changed our world. Calvin did not invent this idea but he certainly organized it and put it to good use. Calvin was pastorally concerned for the refugees rushing into Geneva. Soon many of the immigrant refugee families were able to get some start up cash and start businesses. This small idea blossomed and soon Calvin’s Geneva became an economic and industrial powerhouse and, of course, soon Geneva became a center for international banking. And even more, this theological vision that money may be used to make money to the Glory of God, came with the followers of John Calvin to this new World. Here that idea motivated the remarkable Protestant Work Ethic which built this nation.
So I sat on the steps of John Calvin’s Church and I pondered Geneva, John Calvin and our church today. I believe John Calvin asks a question that is powerfully relevant and challenging for us. It was the question he asked of his people in Geneva. Are we using our money, our wealth for the soothing of our own greed? Or are we using our money to the Glory of God? Buying a Lamborghini may be one answer. Making a sacrificial, financial commitment to the work of the church and seeking to discern the demands of economic justice in our world today may be a very different answer.
I celebrate John Calvin. We would, I believe, do well to reacquaint ourselves again with his theological vision and commitments to the glory of God.