“The Decision We Must Make”


I am at Grace United Methodist Church in Slate Hill, NY this Sunday morning, the 4th Sunday in Lent (10 March 2013). The service is at 10 am and you are invited to attend. The Scriptures for the 4th Sunday in Lent – Joshua 5: 9 – 12, 2 Corinthians 5: 16 – 21, and Luke 1 – 3, 11 – 32. Part of this message was given at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen at Grace UMC in Newburgh, NY, on Saturday, March 9th and entitled “The New Paradigm”.

When I began preparing this message I thought about what I wanted to title it. For me, the title is the key thought that I want to express in the message and also perhaps link the three Scripture readings together.

At the beginning this proved to be a little difficult because there seemed to be no link between the three readings. But the link would appear and I would also find the words that would be the focus of the message I gave at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen on Saturday.

The link appeared and the title came to me when I saw that “Amazing Grace” was one of the hymns that we could use for this Sunday. The popularity and power of this hymn is such that Bill Moyers once did a one-hour documentary on the song (see “http://www.pbs.org/americanrootsmusic/pbs_arm_es_religious.html”) and its popularity as a folk song. The song speaks to me, in part, because the melody comes from our Southern heritage. But it is the story behind its writing that speaks to the power of God’s Grace and what it means for us. It is a story that many people do not know.

John Newton was the author of the hymn and he was a British ship captain in the mid and late 18th century. Like so many other ship captains, he was involved in what was politely called the triangle trade, of sailing from England to Africa with a load of rum which would be sold there. From Africa, he would sail to the Americas with a cargo of slaves to be sold. He would pick up a cargo of sugar in the Americas to be shipped to England and made into rum which would complete the triangle and begin the process anew.

It was a very lucrative business and John Newton became very wealthy. But on one of those sailing trips, the storms that define sailing in the Atlantic were far rougher than normal (keep in mind that it was similar storm that caused John Wesley to begin having doubts about his own life and mission). The severity of the storms began to give John Newton cause to think about his life and what he was doing. When Arlo Guthrie sings “Amazing Grace” at one of his concerts, he tells the audience that John Newton turned his shipped around and began a new life.

However, it does not appear that this is what he did. But it was clear that he began to question the morality of a business that involving the selling and transportation of other humans and he began to change his life. He would leave the sailing business altogether and ultimately become a vicar in the Church of England, a leading anti-slavery advocate, and a writer of many hymns, some of which are in our own United Methodist Hymnal today.

The one question that we might ask today is “which son in the parable of the lost son was John Newton?” Was he the younger son, who took everything he had and squandered it away, whose life was such that he was reduced to eating corn cobs? Or was he the older son, who stayed home and worked for his father and lived the proper and correct life?

And how should we see our own experiences in this story and in the story, perhaps, of John Newton?

The New Paradigm

As some of you know, I hold a Ph. D. in Science Education from the University of Iowa. In my studies, I had to take a course in the philosophy of science and I was introduced to Thomas Kuhn and his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In this book, Kuhn coined the phrase “paradigm shift.”

I happen to think that this is one of the most abused phrases in the English language today. Everytime someone makes some sort of change in something, they refer to it as a “paradigm shift.” But change alone cannot do that. What Kuhn meant by a paradigm shift was a complete change in thinking.

Too many people today think that any change in the way we do things, especially if it is radical or steps outside the normal operation, is a paradigm shift. The church today, be it the church in general, a specific denomination, or a specific church within a denomination, is faced with the problem of reaching out to many people. So they seek to be “hip” or “cool”, offering upbeat music with guitars and drum or having their pastor wear outlandish Hawaiian-style shirts and blue jeans while preaching from a pulpit-less stage. If you see some of these pastors today, look closely at the stage and tell me where the cross is; I don’t think you will find it because, as I have written and others have noted, the cross scares people away from the church. So churches have come up with ways to bring people back to the church. But I will tell you this; it does not matter if you have the hippest or coolest church in town and your pastor really digs what’s happening, if the message that the church gives is the same old tired message, it won’t work. It doesn’t do any good to change the appearance of things if the thinking behind the changes is the same old stuff.

Consider the following if you will and when you answer the question, think of the answer a child would give – does the earth move?

Now, hopefully we know that the earth is moving around the sun and the solar system that it is a part of is moving through the universe. But when we see the clouds above us move or we watch the stars move across the nightly sky we can conclude that the earth is stationary and it is the universe that moves around us.

Early astronomers were so convinced of this that our first model of the solar system placed an immovable earth at the center. As it happened, this model worked quite well for over 1000 years or so. But as we gained new information about the stars and the planets, it began to run into difficulty. To keep the earth-centered model with all of the information that we were gathering required constant tinkering with the model. All this did was make the model more and more complicated and more complex.

When this happened, the astronomers of that time had to make a decision. It was either try to force the model to work, despite the evidence that it wasn’t, or step back and create a newer model. And this, of course, is what was done; led by the work of Kepler, Copernicus, and Galileo, astronomers created the sun-centered model of the solar system.

The only way that this model could have been created was to step back and re-think the solution, not merely make force the old solution to work. This is what Kuhn termed a paradigm shift, a changing not in the way we do things but in the way we think about the solution. Such a change is often met with resistance and, some times, hostility. We are quite aware that the 15th century church saw this change in the solar system as an attack on the church. And we know how that turned out.

It was noted in the Gospel reading for this morning that the Pharisees and other religious authorities were very upset because Jesus ate with the sinners and others with questionable reputations. One can understand why; it violated every known rule of social behavior. And it seems that Jesus gave little thought to the purity codes that dictated one’s life in those days.

The mere act of eating with those who were sick or through some action of life were deemed ritually unclean made Jesus and those who sat with the sinners also unclean. And if you were unclean and failed to follow the proper procedures to regain your cleanliness, you would not be allowed to enter the Temple.

And if you could not enter the Temple, how would you ever hope to meet God? In being with the sinners and telling them there was a new way to meet God, Jesus was striking at the very core of religious life in Israel.

The people of that time had been brought up with the notion that only a select few could meet God. And one might hope to meet God if they followed the regimented life of laws and regulations that were imposed on them and enforced by the Pharisees and other religious authorities. Yet here was Jesus telling them there was another way. How many times did Jesus say that when you were with Him, you were with the Father? How many times did Jesus say that the way to the Father was through Him?

Jesus made it very clear that there was a new process in place and this, to me, was a very clear paradigm shift.

The parable of the lost son makes this clear, I think. There are those who are like the younger son, having lost everything (perhaps not physically but most certainly spiritually) and cut off from life.

There was more to the story than the younger son eating the corn cobs that were given to the pigs to eat. The very fact that this son was working with pigs made him an outcast in his own society. His contact with the pigs would have caused his family, his friends, and all in society who knew him to shun him. He couldn’t get anything else to eat because society had cast him aside and wouldn’t have anything to do with him.

But there are many today who are like the older son, the one who stayed home and dutifully did all that was asked of him. They get angry when they don’t get the same banquet that the younger brother got.

But those who react like the older brother don’t get the point. Doing everything by the book doesn’t mean that you get God’s Grace. If you only see Jesus Christ with your mind, you might miss Him. You have to see Him as much with your heart as you do your mind.

And here Paul’s words ring true. Our world is a different world when it is viewed in the light of Christ. It is what is inside our hearts that counts, not what is on the outside.

The Pharisees and authorities saw Jesus eating with sinners but they did not see what was happening to them. What did they discuss with Jesus? What questions did they ask Him? Our Scripture reading tells us that they listened intently; I am sure that Jesus, as a Master Teacher, listened to their cares and concerns as well.

He spoke then and He speaks today of a Hope and a Promise. But it was a Hope and a Promise that could only come when one changed their life.

I sometimes think that the greatest challenge we face today is not the world outside the church walls but what goes on inside. There are so many people who live a life like that of the older brother or the Pharisees. But there are many who live the life of the younger brother. When you think of it, neither life is really worth the living.

There is a new life in Christ. The Old Testament reading for today speaks of the end of the manna that feed the Israelites throughout the Exodus. But now the manna no longer comes and the people must work for their food. We see so many people who expect God to give them everything they have (and it does not matter whether one takes on the role of the older brother or the role of the younger brother) and that is all that they do. If we have truly come to Christ, we must do Christ’s work.

Borrowing an idea expressed by John Meunier, “if the people are faithful, God will see them through the struggle, but they must exert themselves and they must show their faithfulness.” (from “Reading Joshua 5: 9 – 12”)

Repentance is the one true paradigm shift because one is to give up all of the old ways and take on the new life in Christ.

The call to repentance is not for one group of people but for all people. And one group cannot say to another, “you must repent but we don’t have to.” The contradiction of that statement should be self-evident.

And now I return to John Newton and the storm that caused him to change his life. Perhaps I should have entitled this message “The Storms in Your Life”, as I did once before. But there is a time when you will have to make a decision. For some it is a decision to come to Christ; for others who have come to Christ, it is a decision to now go out and live for Christ, to show others what Christ can do.

No one can make that decision for you; it is one you must make for yourself. The Gospel message is a prophetic message and it is a radical message; it is about who has the power in your life. When do not have to commit your life to Christ but then who has the power? There are forces in place that will enslave and destroy you. But a commitment to Christ breaks those bonds of enslavement and destruction and frees you.

The decision one has to make is very clear; are you prepared to make it?

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