Paradigm Shift

On the 50th Anniversary of the Birmingham Bombings 
Matthew 5:43-48, John 1:1-5
South Presbyterian Church – September 15, 2013
The Reverend Deborah Fae Swift


          We’ve all heard it.

          Maybe some of us have even USED it.

          The “it” is the phrase, “Paradigm Shift.”


          It’s a phrase that comes to us from the science community. I like Wikipedia’s explanation the best: when scientists encounter anomalies that cannot be explained by the universally accepted understandings or the framework within which scientific progress has existed up to that point, EVERYTHING changes. It’s not simply the current theory that changes, but the entire worldview in which it exists, and all of the implications which come with it. This is based on features of the landscape of knowledge that scientists can identify around them.

          So when anomalies start happening in science … things they can’t explain with their current laws and understandings … they have to decide if it’s really an anomaly or if their SCIENCE has to change. When enough significant anomalies have accrued against a current paradigm, the scientific discipline is thrown into a state of crisis. During this crisis, new ideas, perhaps ones previously discarded, are tried. Eventually a new paradigm is formed, which gains its own new followers, and an intellectual “battle” takes place between the followers of the new paradigm and the hold-outs of the old paradigm.

          This process happens across the board in ALL professions, not just science. It happens in all areas of life.

          Think about music.

          I had to laugh this week because Voyager, the spacecraft we launched from earth 30-some years ago has finally left the Solar System. This is a huge deal for humankind. And we have on board Voyager, a bunch of things that explain to people who we are. And one of those things is an 8-track stereo.

          I kid you not.

          An 8-track.

          NOBODY has an 8-track anymore.  Everything’s DIGITAL.

          Digital hadn’t been discovered yet though when Voyager lifted off.

          There was a paradigm shift in the music industry when SCIENCE discovered how to reproduce music digitally.

          At the time, some embraced the new paradigm … some did not.


          Well, that’s what the bombing in Birmingham presented to the world in terms of the Civil Rights movement. Everything that white America thought … everything that was portrayed internationally to the WORLD … it all changed with the bombing of a church and the murder of four little girls.


          For those of us who are old enough to remember this event … it’s one thing. But for those who aren’t, it’s entirely different.

          I mean … I’ve had the discussion lately around why should we hold onto and commemorate the day that something so horrific happened to us? And the answer is:



          Just as we remember 9/11 (and the generation before mine honored Pearl Harbor Day) … things like this that shake us to our roots SHOULD be remembered.

          As George Santayana, renowned philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist is famous for saying: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  And frankly, we need to NEVER repeat this part of our past which, some would argue, we are not yet finished undoing.


          Was this the FIRST time that the Klan had killed African-Americans? Absolutely not. And it wouldn’t be the last.

          But this was different for those of us looking on!

          This was SUNDAY morning … God’s day … and in God’s HOUSE … and these were four LITTLE GIRLS!!!!

          Almost all Americans – and millions around the world – could relate.

          It’s rather like this whole poisonous gas situation in Syria. These were little CHILDREN … innocent MOTHERS and FATHERS and CHILDREN. It made everything that has come before it PALE in comparison.


          THAT’s why it’s important for us to remember this day.

          But it’s also VERY important to remember the RESPONSE – A New Paradigm:  a new way of THINKING … a new way of INTERPRETING events … a new way of BEING in the world;  new PRIORITIES … new AWARENESS … and, for the people of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, RENEWED commitment … RENEWED building.

          The picture on the front of your bulletin today is that of a stained glass window which was donated by the people of Wales after the 1963 bombing of the church. The south-facing window was designed by Welsh artist John Petts and depicts a black Christ with his arms outstretched. The right hand symbolizes oppression, his left is asking for forgiveness. The words “You do it to me” refer to Christ’s parable of the sheep and the goats and the idea that whatever we do to the least of those among us, we do also to Jesus.

          It looks to be a powerful window … and it is a powerful STATEMENT coming from the people of Wales … not just to the CHURCH, but to ALL of us.


          So Paradigm Shifts … they happen all around us.

          They are happening in THIS church … in this congregation …

          They are happening in our SOCIETY around issues of marriage equality and our overseas involvement in other countries. We needn’t be afraid of them, and we needn’t shy AWAY from them.

          They are happening in our larger church where congregations just like us are grappling with what it means to be Christian in the 21st century.


          I have to chuckle at some of the paradigm shifts around Christianity, actually. Before Martin Luther, it was assumed that only the PRIESTS needed to read scripture. A Bible was needed in the church and maybe in the Priest’s STUDY.

          And then along came Luther who said EVERYONE needs to read Scripture because we EACH have a responsibility for our own salvation.

          So eventually, every HOUSEHOLD wanted and needed to have a Family Bible. One Bible for the family to share.

          And NOW ???  I have 4 or 5 different translations just on my PHONE!

          What a change in understanding and expectation.

          A change in Bible PARADIGM.


          So to bring it home to today’s commemoration … what are some of the understandings and expectations that STILL need to be changed around race relations in this country?

          Where is this new paradigm taking us?


          Much as with Luther’s feeling about our salvation … it’s in our hands. God leaves us with free choice.

          We can CHOOSE to say, “the worst is past … let’s move on” because we genuinely WANT it to be behind us. But that’s not the experience of “the least of these, my brothers and sisters.”

          And I don’t KNOW what it’s like to be a woman of color in this country because I am NOT a woman of color.

          I am an ALLY to people of color … and I am the MOTHER of a young woman of color, but my paradigm has shifted about that, for SURE.

          In 1963 when the bombing happened, I could not have even SAT with my child of color in the South … let ALONE be her MOTHER.

          This congregation and the multiple hues that we represent would not have been able to exist in over half of our country then.

          It was well-established that the most segregated hour in America was 11:00 on Sunday morning because everybody went to their own little segregated CHURCHES or Temple …

          Just LOOK at how things have changed… and NOT just around race. The role of WOMEN … there were no women pastors in the Presbyterian Church in 1963!

          We Presbyterians were still split into the Northern and Southern churches and would stay that way for another 20 years!

          Look at how the vision of INCLUSION has changed … not just in terms of race or people growing up in one faith tradition and choosing a different one later in life … but in terms of inclusion right HERE:  People living with HIV/AIDS … DIVORCED couples … trans-GENDERED people … the ways we welcome GLBT people …

          LOOK at how the VISION of possibilities has changed.

          The whole PARADIGM has shifted …

          And for that we not only thank GOD, but we thank those who have worked and sacrificed so very much … people from ALL races and COUNTRIES.

          It’s AMAZING what can happen when we allow the paradigm to shift, isn’t it? No longer FIGHTING to keep things the same way … giving in to the FLOW of the Holy Spirit …

          It’s almost like God has a PLAN … oh … wait … God DOES have a Plan. J  It’s called the Kingdom of God …

          All WE have to do is figure out how to fit INTO it …


          And thank God we have Jesus and the Holy Spirit to help us with that one!

          Let us pray:

Holy One: on days like this, we are ashamed of things that have happened in our past;  and we are also grateful for the sacrifices which led us to a paradigm shift in our national thinking.

          On this day, let us pledge ourselves to you and to your kingdom so that ALL are recognized as the priceless Children of God that we are. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s