The New Paradigm

Heritage Presbyterian Church

September 6, 2020
Labor Day Weekend
Scripture reading – Exodus 12: 1-14

A long time ago, I was acting as the liturgist in my home church of Spring Branch Presbyterian.  We had the chaplain from the Seamen’s Center filling our pulpit that Sunday.  We always enjoyed it when this skinny old guy came because he seemed to take such delight in changing stuff around.  For example: I have seen him preach three or four times, but I have never seen him wear a suit or the traditional Presbyterian preacher robe – you know, the serious black one.  He always wore what I would call peasant’s robe, a while cotton robe sometimes with a colored sash.  He also enjoyed walking right down the middle aisle of the church whenever he read anything from Scripture.  That unsettled everyone… that’s NOT how we do things in our church.  But my very favorite thing that he did occurred whenever he read from the Gospel.  When he got to it, he walked to the middle of the church, and said rather matter-of-factly, “Please stand for the reading of the Gospel.” 

The first time he did this, we all just sat there staring at him and unsure of what to do.  He was doing it DIFFERENTLY.  We didn’t do that.  Somebody tell this guy!  Then he grinned and said, “Don’t you think we should stand for the Gospel?”  You should have seen the elders of that church leaping to their feet and virtually dragging everyone else up too.  He waited and grinned and waited and grinned.  Then before he started, he said, “Being a hit-and-run preacher, I can get away with that.”  Then he read the Gospel and we LISTENED.  When the following week rolled around and we had returned to normal, and the Gospel reading time came up in the order of worship, I noticed everyone looking around at each other wondering if we should stand again.  We didn’t.  I think many of us were disappointed because that experience the week before was enjoyable for most.  

We had experienced a new paradigm.

Let’s review of the definition of the word paradigm:

It is a way of doing things, a set pattern, a fixed arrangement, an accepted way of thinking that others follow.  

So a paradigm shift is a move away from whatever is being done to a new way of thinking or working.  We celebrate the fact that we are members of the Christian faith with all the rituals and ceremony that we can muster. But I wonder if our paradigms need to be examined closely to see if we are following them for the right reasons.

In today’s reading from Scripture, we are shown an excellent example of a paradigm shift: in the book of Exodus from the Old Testament, we have the Lord explaining in great detail how the people of Israel are to prepare the Passover feast, what to do, what it means, exactly what will happen, etc.  Then the Lord explained that from now on, this festival would be one of remembering this one very significant occurrence in which the Lord delivered them from bondage.  They may have had festivals in the past; they may have dreamed of better times and freedom from their bondage in Egypt; they may have had ceremonies in which certain things were done.  But this one is a brand new paradigm, a new way of celebrating this new event.  And just to make sure it stuck, it was to be done exactly in this way.  A new paradigm was born for the people of God!

Now when we talk about paradigms, we are talking about change.  We don’t like change…we fight it…we justify and defend fiercely what we are already doing…we close our minds to the possibility that another way might possibly be better.  And many times the only things that we really change are the words we use.

In recent years, notice how some words have changed:

–           calling in sick became taking a personal day;

–           vagrants and bums become the homeless;

–           drunk driving became operating a vehicle while impaired;

–           a bribe became a contribution from a political action committee;

–           jungles became rain forests;

–           swamps became wetlands;

–           and finally housewives became stay-at-home moms.

Have you ever noticed that God seldom calls us to continue doing the same thing we have been doing, even if we were doing it well?  No, when God calls, when the paradigm changes through Him, it is often abrupt and sudden.  

A few years ago, a pastor friend of mine left his comfortable church to move to Shreveport, Louisiana, to start a counseling program for Vietnam vets.  I don’t know what went into this decision, but I know that he had a wife and two children, and all four of them just left.  There is a large population of Vietnam vets in the Shreveport area, and most of them have gotten little or no help dealing with their condition, some even 25 years after the war ended.  This pastor was also a Vietnam vet who flew combat helicopters, so he was very familiar with this particular paradigm.  And he would tell you that the paradigm of war is a terrible thing that we should all learn from, no matter which war we are fighting at the time.

Some so-called modern paradigms are myths that need to be exposed for the lies they are.  A good example of this is our youth today.  The common knowledge, the paradigm about them is that they are not as wonderful, not as good as we were when we were kids back in our day.  But look a just little closer and you might even see a little of yourself in their behavior.  When Elvis Presley hit it big back in the fifties, guys all over America were practicing curling their lips in the bathroom mirrors, mumbling when folks spoke to them, walking around with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in their sleeves, their hair greased and combed up instead of back. 

And as for drugs…maybe drugs weren’t as prevalent then as they are now, but that was because the youth back then didn’t know about them.  But they knew all about alcohol.  Alcohol was freely abused back then just as it is today…

and the new paradigm about that is that alcohol is now a drug.  

And speaking of youth of today versus youth of our generation, if we were so good when we were kids, then why is it that each of us can think of someone in our past who was just as bad, if not worse, than we imagine we see today?  Before you judge the youth of today, consider the paradigms they now face:

  • guns in schools;
  • parents that are not as involved in schools as they used to be;
  • more curriculum that is being introduced at a younger and younger age;
  • test scores that are published in the newspaper;
  • more pressure to succeed;
  • fewer and fewer qualified teachers to teach them;
  • masks on every face you can see;
  • drugs that can be purchased in virtually every school

and on and on – things my generation never dreamed about. They even talk about bullying in schools – a topic that seldom saw the light of day when I was a kid in school, even though it was widespread in every school I ever attended.  I’m glad I have so many youth in my life.  They remind me of how paradigms can shift every day, any day.

Now I don’t want you to think that paradigm shifts are always a bad thing…sometimes paradigms change for the better and everyone breathes a sigh of relief.  Some of us don’t even realize that we have grown stale in our thinking.  We need to change.  But we don’t like it, do we?  We fight it and resent it – at least until we get used to it.  

For example, only a generation ago, the idea of a woman pastor might have caused a serious problem in the church.  Indeed, there are other religions – even other branches of the Presbyterian Church – that still bar women from even considering the ministry.  The Bible, the Koran, the Torah, the ancient teachings are usually cited in keeping women from the ministry.  But back in the 1950’s, this began to slowly change.  And 30 years ago, in the church I attended in Austin, a small tornado named Debbie was hired as the associate pastor.  

Debbie loved everybody and everything about being a minister.  And for those of you that truly believe that Austin is the last true haven of liberal thinking, let me tell you…you never met the Session of that church in 1978.  But Debbie did such a good job at everything that it was tough keeping her in check.  She visited the old people in the nursing homes, she attended circle meetings in the homes, she went on mission trips with the youth, she made faces during her sermons which were hysterically funny but also serious enough to keep you thinking all week.  When the new, very serious, classically trained pastor, came to work at this church, Debbie and the other associates offered their resignations – that used to be the paradigm when a new pastor arrived.  The new pastor begged Debbie to stay, telling her that she was needed more than him.  They formed a very unusual yet very successful partnership.  Debbie won over the faithful and converted them to that new paradigm – women pastors.  

And here we are 40 years later, with more and more women in ministry and leading churches.  We are still surprised when we hear that one-half to two-thirds of each PCUSA seminary class contains women, many in their second careers.  This is new, this is disconcerting, but it’s okay.  That is how it feels when paradigms shift. I only hope that when problems arise, as they certainly will, that we remember that problems occur in all churches, not just the ones led by a woman.  You see, we are still getting used to this new paradigm.  It’s still shifting.

But no matter what the paradigm may be, no matter how good the new paradigm may seem to people, there are always some who will reject all new paradigms simply because they are new.  My grandmother used to say that sometimes you need a few funerals before things change.  Sounds a little dramatic coming from a great-grandmother, doesn’t it?  When she used to say that, she was not advocating violence; she was saying that old ideas need to die with the people who keep them going, and new paradigms need to be considered, tried and tested. 

Or maybe we just need a paradigm buster like a gay mayor of Houston, or a female rabbi of a conservative synagogue, or Bo Jackson who played NFL football and major league baseball at the same time, or even a black president, or… name your own. 

That leads us to the final and most important paradigm of today’s message.  Examine what Jesus said and you will realize that the world has not really moved on that much in the last two thousand years. We still have choices in our paradigms.

Don’t get mad, get even – or forgive the sinner seventy times seven.

Look out for number one – or turn the other cheek.

Get a job, ya bum – or whatever you do to the least of my brothers you do unto me.

Only the strong survive – or the meek shall inherit the earth.

Get over it – or Jesus wept.

Look at me – or the humble will be exalted.

Children should be seen and not heard – or suffer the little children to come unto me.

We need a committee to study this and bring back a report to the Session – or He is Lord.

The paradigm remains…only don’t call it new.  It’s two thousand years old and it’s still as new and as fresh as the days when he walked the earth.  

Our old, new paradigm – Jesus Christ is our Lord!