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Isaiah 44.21-28

Romans 5.18-21, 12-17

An American in Paris

(Five to Seven for Good Behavior – III)

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

It was our eighteenth wedding anniversary, and the entire nation was celebrating.  As we watched the grand and majestic parade march through the capital city fighter jets flew overhead, massive artillery displays rumbled through the streets, banners and flags waved in the breeze, multiple marching bands played patriotic tunes, and in an interesting twist, as the fire departments of various precincts strode by, each one sang its own local department’s song – do you think we can get the Chester Hose company to sing for us next memorial Day?  Everyone in the crowd, both the parade participants and the thousands of people watching, sported the national blue, white and red to commemorate our anniversary.  Of course, it helped that Debbie and I were married on July 14, and on that eighteenth anniversary we were joined by a good percentage of the city of Paris to celebrate Bastille Day.  It all took place during my second sabbatical in 1997 when we spent six weeks in France and Switzerland as I followed the life and studied the theology of one of the giants of the Protestant Reformation, Frenchman John Calvin.

When I shared my plans with my church’s Board of Deacons, I confess I received more than one puzzled look around the room.  “John Calvin was French?” one of them asked disbelievingly.  And I understand the tacit assumption:  we expect our reformers to be Germanic rather than romantic.  Martin Luther was German, Jan Hus was Czech, we talked bout the Scot John Knox two weeks ago, and Ulrich Zwingli, though his name sounds German, was Swiss.  John Calvin, or as he was called in his native France, Jean Cauvin, was born in Noyon, which sits on the River Oise about sixty miles northeast of Paris.  His boyhood home is now a museum – in fact the journal I kept for that trip has my admission ticket to the Museé Noyon tucked away in its pages.  It is where Calvin grew up and, under the stern influence of his father, decided to go into law.  So on his admission to the Sorbonne, he left Noyon and moved to Paris, which was our home base for those six weeks while I traced both Calvin’s biographical and theological footsteps.

When Bill and Luz, two members of my Bridgewater congregation, learned I was interested in studying the life and work of Calvin, they invited us to use their apartment in Paris’ seventh arrondissement, about three blocks away from the Eiffel Tower.  But as our plans developed, they also changed, and we wound up doing two three-week house swaps, one with a French family near the Canal St Martin in the tenth arrondissement, the other with an American couple in the seventeenth whose family lived not far north of us in Litchfield County. 

It was while Calvin was studying at the Sorbonne that an evangelical wind, as one historian put it, blew through central France, and Calvin began to feel the call to a different profession, much to his father’s chagrin.  So he gave up his law studies for religion, philosophy and theology, and entered the ministry.

He was best known for his time as the pastor at the church of St. Pierre, or St Peter’s, in Geneva – and thank you for putting us all in a Swiss mood and mode this morning, Margie!  But Calvin’s road to Geneva was a journey with multiple stops along the way, and that summer, my family and I dutifully followed.

Now during that summer I was acutely aware that not everyone in the family was as enthused about following this dour reformer across France and Switzerland as I was, and so trying to be a good Dad I sweetened the pot by making sure my daughters had enough to keep them entertained.  In Noyon we found a wonderful little sweet shop where we bought candies and ice cream after visiting Calvin’s home.  I took a break from my studies to spend a day in Euro Disney, at the time only five years in operation.  When Calvin left Paris, he stopped in Strasbourg, one of those French cities that kept going back and forth between French and German jurisdiction, depending on whoever won the most recent war, which explains why a city called Strasbourg, German for street city, is French.  And in the heart of the city is a lovely small cathedral of St Thomas, where Martin Bucer invited Calvin to minister and preach for three years.  He also took the opportunity to teach at the seminary which is next to St Thomas.  And in the shadow of the church is a lovely park in the center of town with a splendid old carousel my girls could enjoy after I made them traipse to the top of the five stories high steeple.  Actually, if memory serves, I only had to make Clare climb to the top; during the entire journey, Blythe never met a steeple or tower she didn’t want to take on; climbing the various towers and cathedrals of France and Switzerland became a kind of mission for her that summer.

Leaving Strasbourg, which I still think is one of the loveliest European cities I’ve seen, we moved on, as did Calvin, to Basel in Switzerland.  Basel sits on the Rhine, and we were fortunate enough to find a hotel with a restaurant that also sat on the river.  Basel was the home of Erasmus, a Dutch scholar, writer and theologian who had a deep influence on the development of Calvin’s thought.  Considered by most to be a Christian Humanist, Erasmus is probably best known for his study and translation of the New Testament, and I used my time in the city to visit his tomb.  Now, the ten days before we went to Basel, which is in the German north of Switzerland, I put my high school French to good use in Paris.  But when I crossed the Swiss border and discovered all the road signs were in German, my brain started doing tricks on me.  It would read the German road sign, translate it into the French I had been using up until that point, and only then did my brain allow it to be understood in English.  Most of the time that method worked well enough, but when you’re driving at 110 kilometers per hour and you have to make a snap decision behind the wheel, translating from German to French to English was sometimes all it took to make you miss your exit.

So I was on more familiar territory as we left Basel and followed Calvin further south into French-speaking Geneva.  Those of you who have been to Geneva know it is a lovely city, sitting on the shore of Lac Lamond.  I was especially taken by the large clock in the central city park that is composed entirely of flowers.  We took a family boat trip on the lake on a sunny afternoon, and spent some time in a playground that is framed on one side by a massive sculpture called Le Bastion, or better known in English as the Wall of the Reformers.  If you saw our Facebook post on Friday you saw a photograph of the Wall of the Reformers.

Now I know that Calvin has a stern reputation.  For someone who developed the idea of the predestination of the soul, the total depravity of humanity and the limited atonement of Jesus, Calvin also had a markedly gentle side.  The whole notion of grace, what he called Irresistible Grace, an idea that you will notice permeates much of our worship this morning, including our Call to Worship, our Invocation and both our Bible readings, was strong in Calvin.  We’ll talk more about the idea of grace in a few weeks when I share my story of following the trail the Apostle Paul took on his second missionary journey through Greece as it is described in the book of Acts.  But it is worth knowing that Calvin often took a break from his work at St Pierre to go outdoors and play with the children on a nearby playground.  He would tell them stories and teach them songs, and the children of Geneva came to know this oft-depicted dour reformer in a tender and grace-filled way.  And so it was fitting when we took Clare and Blythe to that playground whose northern wall was in fact the Wall of the Reformers.  Because while they rode the see-saw and swung on the swings and climbed the monkey bars, they did so under the watchful gaze of no fewer than six giants of the Protestant Reformation.  The Wall of the Reformers depicts French evangelist William Farel, theologian Theodore Beza, John Calvin and John Knox, and standing off to either side are statues of Martin Luther and Ullrich Zwingli.  Say this for the city of Geneva, they know how to honor their Reformers at the same time they provide joy for their children.

But for me, the highlight of the visit was my time in St Pierre.  Unfortunately Calvin’s lecture hall was locked the day I was there, but the church was open and even though I was forbidden to climb into his pulpit – the wooden spiral staircase leading to his elevated pulpit was cordoned off – I still got a good photo of me standing next to it, much like I was a able to stand next to Jan Hus’ pulpit in Prague years later.

And as I’ve said before, sabbatical trips are definitely not all work and no play.  A pair of good friends from my congregation came to visit for a week, and we all took the bullet train from Paris to Cap d’Antibes for a few days on the Cote d’Azur.  To this day some of my former parishioners like to tease me about searching for Calvin in a Riviera bar.  But while I never saw Calvin there, we did see and hear Winton Marsalis perform in the amphitheater with the Mediterranean as a backdrop… he was great.  And speaking of musicians, we also visited Pierre Lachaise cemetery in the middle of Paris, which brought about an odd coincidence at which I still shake my head.  You may know that multiple musical personalities are buried in Pierre Lachaise.  We visited the graves of composers Gioachino Rossini, Frederic Chopin and Leo Delibes, and singers Edith Piaf and the Doors’ Jim Morrison.  And then, speaking of musicians, who should come strolling toward us through the cemetery from the opposite direction but the former organist of my church, Jon Lafleur.  Call it serendipity, call it providence, but we were more startled and stunned to find each other there in the center of Paris.

We attended the American Church in Paris one Sunday morning, a church Bill and Luz hoped I would someday pastor after leaving Bridgewater, though that never came to pass.  And to give some attention to the other side of Calvin’s work, we followed the early trail of the Roman Catholic Church’s Counter Reformation in France, traveling down the west coast to La Rochelle, Bergerac and the Dordogne Valley, home to some delightful wines.

We were able to pack quite a lot into those six weeks of sabbatical, and I spent the remainder of my three months doing some follow-up study on Calvin, including reading through both volumes of his Institutes of the Christian Religion.   So it was a work trip, it was a fun trip, it was a family trip, and it was a memorable trip.  Next week we will move the calendar ahead to 2008 and travel to Italy to consider the ways the church’s earliest creeds influenced its art.

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United Church of Chester, 29 West Main Street, Chester, CT 06412. (860) 526-2697


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