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Presbyterians: A Heritage of Resistance

July 3, 2017


A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church to mark the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, the anniversary of the Declaration of American Independence, and the Birthday of John Calvin, July 2, 2017

Psalm 103 (inclusive language)      Mark 6:21-24

The following section from The Kairos Document, written by black South Africans in 1985, was read as a preface to a reading of Psalm 103, which was done with inclusive language, replacing “the Lord” with “Our Sovereign.”

When we search the Bible for a message about oppression we discover, as others throughout the world are discovering, that oppression is a central theme that runs right through the Old and New Testaments. . . . Moreover, the description of oppression in the Bible is concrete and vivid. The Bible describes oppression as the experience of being crushed, degraded, humiliated, exploited, impoverished, defrauded, deceived and enslaved. And the oppressors are described as cruel, ruthless, arrogant, greedy, violent and tyrannical and as the enemy. Such descriptions could only have been written originally by people who had a long a painful experience of what it means to be oppressed. . . . Throughout the Bible God appears as the liberator of the oppressed. God is not neutral. God does not attempt to reconcile Moses and Pharaoh. To reconcile the Hebrew slaves with their Egyptian oppressors, or to reconcile the Jewish people with any of their later oppressors. Oppression is sin and it cannot be compromised with; it must be done away with. God takes sides with the oppressed. As we read in Psalm 103:6 (JB), “God who does what is right, is always on the side of the oppressed.”

The Sunday closest to, and before, the Fourth of July is always marked by this congregation as a Heritage Day. At the conclusion of our worship today we will process into the Presbyterian Burial Ground, our historic cemetery, to stand in the presence of our founding mothers and fathers who built this church and fought for political liberty, and we will read from the Declaration of Independence. The first public reading of the Declaration took place on July 9, 1776 just down the street from here – with our pastor in attendance and a trustee of this congregation on the committee that would end colonial rule and establish New York as the first state in what would become the United States of America. We always pair our remembering of this revolution with one or more readings from the many struggles that have been fought to expand the idea of freedom: women’s suffrage, collective bargaining, economic democracy, voting rights, civil rights, and the myriad contemporary struggles for enforcing basic human rights.

On October 28, 1890, one of my predecessors, The Rev. Anthony Robinson Macoubrey, at the request of the church council, delivered an address to the Westchester County Historical Society on the following topic The Relation of Presbyterianism to Revolutionary Sentiment in the Province of New York. Dr. Macoubrey asked the question, “Why did Presbyterians almost universally take up the cause of revolution?” And he provided at least three answers to the question:

  • First, resistance to tyranny is an inherent part of our biblical and theological heritage, bequeathed to us by John Calvin in the Protestant Reformation;
  • Second, the founders of this congregation were, he says, further ‘schooled in resistance’ by the tyranny of New York’s governor, Lord Cornbury, who confiscated protestant church property in Jamaica, Queens, and in our sister church in Rye, N.Y.; One of the ministers sent to investigate the property theft, by the way, was our own pastor, the Rev. John Smith.
  • And, the third reason Presbyterians almost universally took up the cause of revolution was that when prominent Presbyterians in New York City used newspapers and pulpits to tell the truth about the governments growing tyranny, the governor accused them of libel and took them to court (or simply had them jailed). The lawyer for the defense was our pastor’s brilliant brother William. The governor lost in court. He also lost the patience of a good many people.

The occasion for the Rev. Dr. Macoubrey’s address was an anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. This year, 2017, marks the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and this week marks the birthday of its greatest figure, John Calvin, the very first Presbyterian, about whom I want to say a few things at some length this morning.


John Calvin is one of the most significant figures of the sixteenth century. Calvin was born in the year 1509 and he died in 1564. That’s the same year Michelangelo died, and the year Shakespeare was born – a little less than one hundred years before immigrants from the Calvinist Massachusetts Bay Colony settled in what was already known as Westchester County, New York.

Though he was the near contemporary of Machiavelli and Thomas More, Erasmus and Rabelais, Michelangelo and Copernicus, Cervantes, Montaigne, and Shakespeare, Calvin is one of the least known. People who have never read a page of his voluminous writings know him by reputation, and a bad reputation at that. He has been called the ‘apostle of gloom’, who turned sixteenth century Geneva into a dismal city. He was a theocratic dictator, servant of an angry God who predestined some to salvation and most to hell. As the originator of our own Presbyterian and Reformed theology, he has sometimes been called ‘a grim paternity’ and ‘as dismal an influence’ as we could hope for.

Which is hogwash! A close reading of Calvin’s sermons and commentaries reveal him to be an extremely sensitive pastor and teacher. Perhaps this sensitivity came from his own experience of exile. For John was an exile from his childhood home of Noyon, in the North of France, a town which had been destroyed by the Imperial aggression of Philip II of Spain. John was an exile from his own beloved country, whose King Francis I persecuted and killed its Protestant leaders in a bid to win the support of the Pope – to out-Catholic Catholic Spain. Calvin remained an exile and immigrant his whole life. He was never quite at homen his adopted city of Geneva. Geneva may have been the city where he built his reputation as a leading reformer, but the city government didn’t even give him the right to vote in city elections or affairs until he lay on the sickbed that became his deathbed.

As a result, exiles from many other countries were drawn to Geneva to learn from him. Everything he wrote (from sermons and biblical commentary, to civic constitutions, letters to government leaders and even his theology) was written in support of the martyred, persecuted and exiled Protestant communities. He sought to convince them that God had not abandoned them, all appearances to the contrary. Calvin wrote to ‘offer resources that would permit the faithful to persevere and retain their integrity in spite of the state’s violent attempts to root out the Reformed religion.’ In his Commentary of Habakkuk, Calvin wrote that the cry of the oppressed, “How long, O Lord” becomes the very cry of God, suffering with us. Which is a remarkable image! When we cry, God cries out with us, God is present with us in our times of distress. Calvin understood God as compassionate and responsive to human suffering, to the point of suffering with us, a theological idea that Elder Sharon Callender echoed in her sermon last week.  This conception of God-in-solidarity-with-us in our suffering helps us understand why Calvin spent so much time pioneering new forms of political governance, emphasizing Christian freedom of conscience, and insisting that it is the duty of the Christian to resist unjust rulers. It is because God is on the side of those who suffer under unjust systems and authorities, as we read in Psalm 103.

In fact, Calvin’s theological writings on these matters were the inspiration behind the unsuccessful Huguenot revolt in La Rochelle, France, whose exiles subsequently created New Rochelle right here in Westchester. Calvin’s Reformed theology also inspired the more successful Dutch, English and American revolutions.

For me, John Calvin stands out as a spiritual leader who straddled the medieval and the modern worlds. It is often said that Martin Luther began the protestant reformation by offering new answers to old questions (what is justification by faith?, how is Christ present in the Eucharist?). Calvin, however, asked new questions (about how power is held and shared, about the political responsibility of citizens, and about how God’s sovereign love for, and care for, the world is demonstrated in the responsible lives of God’s people). The English poet Carlyle put it this way: “Protestantism was a revolt against spiritual sovereignties, Popes and much else. Prebyterianism carried out the revolt against earthly sovereignties and despotisms.” If Luther began the Protestant reformation, John Calvin organized it and made Protestantism the basis of a new culture.

As a creator of culture, Calvin gets credited or blamed for an awful lot that characterizes the modern world: for capitalism and modern science, for the discipline and rationalization of the complex societies of the West, for the revolutionary spirit and democracy, for secularization and social activism, for individualism, utilitarianism, and empiricism.’ Whew!

That scholars either pay homage to or blame Calvin for instigating such developments is not surprising. For the very point of theology – of Christian worship – for Calvin was not simply to contemplate God but to change the world, to transform church and society, to pray with Jesus, as Jesus prayed, that it might be ‘on earth as in heaven.’ His most famous writing, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, was written while he was in exile in Geneva and dedicated to King Francis I of France – who you will remember as the King who forced Calvin into exile because he – Francis – was trying to out-Catholic Catholic Spain by persecuting all the Protestants. Calvin’s Institutes were written precisely to defend the Protestant communities from the charge of heresy and treason, and to remind the king that he – yes even he, the king – was accountable to the sovereign God. Calvin was no ivory-tower academic, nor was he a heavenly-minded preacher; he was a man of deep faith and trust, an intellectual and social leader who catalyzed new approaches to understanding ourselves, our society and God that continue to reverberate in the 21st century.

One of Calvin’s principle aims was to bring all of life under the lordship of Christ by stressing God’s sovereign and beneficent rule. What he accomplished was a democratizing of religion and the creation of very idea of popular sovereignty; in the words of political scientist Michael Walzer, he transferred political agency from the prince to the saint. All you have to do is compare Calvin with the other political luminary of his time, Machiavelli: Machiavelli had no program of action for citizens, only for The Prince. Calvin, on the other hand, inspired and empowered ordinary people not only to better themselves but also to improve their communities and nations, and all for the Glory of God.

You see, the sovereignty of God, to which the saint is committed – and by saint Calvin and I mean all the members of the Christian community, the church – the ultimate sovereignty of God (the power and presence of God in the world) dethrones every unjust government and demands resistance to tyranny. Can you imagine the modern world without this idea? Only God, and no earthly emperor, king, or ruler deserves ultimate allegiance. Calvin clearly states that whenever fidelity to human authorities interferes with our principle duty to God, we must, in the words of Acts 5:29, ‘obey God rather than human authority.’ So important was this imperative that Calvin not only drove it home in the final lines of his Institutes, which he wrote for educated adults, but he put it in the final section of the catechism he wrote for children. The whole of his thought – Reformed and Presbyterian thought – leads to responsible participation in public life by both adults and children. No matter what the cost. Friends, this is why I am a Presbyterian.

Our gospel reading this morning tells us of the arrest and execution of John the Baptist. To understand the context, Jesus had just sent his disciples out on their own for the first time, two by two, to heal, cast out demons, and preach repentance. Jesus’ rejection in his hometown has served as an example to his disciples that faithfulness does not necessarily mean success. Right after our gospel reading the disciples will return to tell the stories of their success. But slipped in the middle of the story of the disciples mission is the example of John the Baptist, who the writer of Mark calls ‘a true prophet of God.’ The story of John’s beheading, reminds us that Jesus’ public ministry began ‘after John was arrested’ and that it has the threat of imperial repression looming over it the whole time.

Now it’s important to know why John was arrested. He wasn’t arrested for eating locusts and wild honey. He was arrested because his public calls for repentance and his practices of baptism were igniting the Jewish people to question and resist Roman Imperial rule. Like the prophets before him, John’s ministry was an attempt to hold the king or ruler accountable.

John was arrested and beheaded because he spoke out when Herod Antipas married his brother Philip’s wife, while Philip was still very much alive. Philips wife was Jewish royalty, and this marriage was Herod’s attempt to claim the title of “King of the Jews” by marrying a Hasmonean princess. Further, he had to divorce his own wife in order to do it, and she was the daughter of the king of Nabataea. This marriage was not about sexual lust (though Calvin is quick to point out that John does condemn this) but about political lust and ambition. Thus Calvin writes,

John has thus, by his example, furnished an undoubted rule for pious teachers (and preachers), not to wink at the faults of princes, so as to purchase their favour at [this/any] price, however advantageous so ever that favour might appear to be to the public interests.” Rather, “we learn with what unshaken fortitude the servants of God ought to be armed when they have to do with princes; for in almost every court hypocrisy and servile flattery are prevalent; and the ears of princes having been accustomed to this smooth language, do not tolerate any voice which reproves their vices with any severity.

In other words, when those receiving the criticism are powerful political figures, persecution (or smear campaigns and claims of libel and even beheading) may follow.

The Gospel of Mark tells the story of John’s death to foreshadow Jesus’ own encounters with the Roman Empire. But it is included at just this point in the story to remind us, the readers, that even in the midst of the disciples’ seemingly successful mission, success is not to be counted as the measure of faithfulness. Truthful witness is. It cost John his life. It cost Jesus his. And it is worth ours.

I imagine exiled Protestant believers who gathered around John Calvin in 16th century Geneva asked themselves, “If the whole world is against us, who is for us? And the answer is the core of Calvin’s thought: “though the world be against you, God is faithful.” Or as the Apostle Paul put it, “If God is for us, who – WHO -can be against us.”

As we acknowledge the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, the anniversary of our nation’s first struggle for independence, and John Calvin’s birthday, I suppose it is not without irony that our gospel this morning is a story about a birthday party. The head of John the Baptist was a birthday present for Herod from his new wife’s daughter. The silencing of God’s judgment is an appalling gift! This story provided Calvin an occasion to reflect on birthday celebrations themselves in his commentary:

The ancient custom of observing a birth-day every year as an occasion of joy cannot itself be disapproved; for that day, as often as it returns, reminds each of us to give thanks to God, who brought us into this world, and has permitted us, in his [sic] kindness, to spend many years in it; next, to bring to our recollection how improperly and uselessly the time which God granted to us has been permitted to pass away; and lastly, that we ought to commit ourselves to the protection of the same God for the remainder of our life.

Let’s take this day and this collection of anniversaries as an occasion to recommit ourselves to God first, and to Calvin’s understanding that “God is known where humanity is served.”



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