The more things change, the more they stay the same

Preacher: Amy Norton
Date: May 9, 2021

Click above to listen to the audio.

Scripture: Acts 10:44-48

Please watch the service on our YouTube page.


Last September, I attended a virtual conference on religious leadership, where the keynote speaker, Ron Heifetz, talked about adaptive leadership. We’ve heard Kent talk about adaptive challenges in past all parish meetings. Adaptive challenges are challenges where we need to adapt our way of thinking in order to solve them, versus technical challenges where the knowledge to fix it is concrete, like a leaky pipe. 


Heifetz used the example of the history of the Jewish people and how Jewish leaders helped their tradition adapt to the circumstances of persecution and diaspora, and thus enabled the tradition to live on by becoming a ‘portable people’. For example, when the temple was no longer the focus of religious life, but rather, dietary laws, keeping Sabbath, home practices, etc.  


Adaptive leadership was what happens when leaders open themselves up to the possibility that a cultural shift needs to happen in order to meet a challenge, and help guide their community through that cultural shift or adaptation in as non-anxious a way as possible, knowing it isn’t their responsibility to keep others happen, but to be compassionate, differentiated, and perseverant. 


It means listening to feedback with a humble curiosity, listening for what’s being said behind the feedback, and it means showing empathy and validating the feelings of fear or frustration while nevertheless staying the course even when the changes make us or our community anxious and frustrated. 


Peter was very much an adaptive leader. As Presbyterian minister Pendleton Peery puts it, “Peter was an adaptive leader before adaptive leaders were cool.  Peter stood tall and steady in a time when the future of the Church was murky--at best.  In many ways, because of Peter's commitment and Peter's responsibility and Peter's wisdom--the body that has become the Church caught a foothold and began to grow.”


“But,” Peery continues, “the Holy Spirit couldn't leave well enough alone.  Just when Peter thought he had navigated the toughest challenges, the Holy Spirit started crossing boundaries that seemed out of bounds.”


And it wasn’t just baptizing Gentiles…by the time we get to where peter’s at in today’s scripture reading, the Holy Spirit has already put Peter through the ringer. 


You see, before peter gets to Caesarea/Jerusalem, God sends him a vision, offering him a banquet full of treif food. That is, food that is absolutely NOT kosher, and food that as a devout Jew, Peter wasn’t supposed to even touch, let alone eat. God says to Peter, “Get up, Peter, and eat” Peter, confused, is like “Um God…you know I’m not supposed to. This food is profane and unclean!” and God basically says to him “Peter, I made all of this. If I made it, it isn’t profane or unclean. You’re good.” 


This happens twice more before it fully sinks in, and Peter is then summoned by a man named Cornelius to meet him in Caesarea, where upon his arrival he begins to preach to a group of gentiles what he has learned from God. To hammer home the message, the Holy Spirit interrupts him and pours out on all who were in attendance, Jews and gentiles alike, and provides them with the gifts of the spirit. 


So peter says, “well if God just baptized these folks with the holy spirit, who are we to say they shouldn’t be baptized with water as well?”. And all the gentiles were baptized. 


This is a BIG deal because in Peters context, up until these holy spirit interventions, this movement, what Luke called “The Way”, was still a part of Judaism, a ‘denomination’ of sorts like the Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, and Zealots). Peter believed that in order to join The Way, you had to first convert to Judaism, and that meant keeping kosher, getting circumcised, and so on. 


After pondering this vision and his initial encounters with Cornelius, Peter reflects, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him”, and that brings us up to speed with what’s going on in the story we heard from our liturgist. 


Pendleton Peery imagined a list of questions that Peter might’ve been mulling over as he worked to be a faithful adaptive leader, and I quote that list now. I encourage you that if one of these questions resonates with you, write it down (you have my permission to pause the worship video if you need more time to write), and pray over it this week, thinking about where this question is showing up in your life or in the life of the church. I’d love to hear what you come up with!

God says to Peter, ”What God has made you shall not call profane."  

I can just hear Peter inwardly groaning, “Really?  We're crossing that line??”


He might’ve been wondering,

    • How will I explain all of this to brothers and sisters in Jerusalem?
    • If the Gentiles are to be part of the church, how will we maintain our identity as God's chosen people?
    • Is this an isolated incident, or is it the beginning of a new chapter?
    • How will the structure we have built around the faith handle this change?
    • Do I have enough energy to meet this challenge?
    • How can I be expected to be a leader in the church if I cannot predict or understand these questions? 


I’ll tell you that the two that resonated with me the most are “How will the structure we have built around the faith handle this change?” and “How can I be expected to be a leader in the church if I cannot predict or understand these questions?” 


COVID, and the way we connect and worship in its wake are MAJOR adaptive challenges. 


And, as Peter well knew, adapting isn’t just about doing new things, but letting go of things, even treasured things, that served a great purpose well in the before times, but the now times might require a different approach/needs to be met differently. 


When we find ourselves resisting what we intellectually may know is a necessary adaptation or evolution, it is often because we feel we are losing something. People don’t fear change, they fear loss. No one says, “wow I got a winning lottery ticket, this is really gonna change my life, maybe I should just toss the ticket”. And if you do say that, well, then, you can give me your winning lottery ticket if it’ll make you feel better. 


We might not be afraid of, or even against the idea of worshipping in Willett Hall during the summer, but we fear losing, even if only for 3 months, the familiarity, spiritual-emotional association, and sense of transcendence that we’ve come to associate with the physical space of our sanctuary. And yet we try it out, and find that the spirit moves us to an imminent worship experience that sends our voices soaring in song despite the buzz of fans in a well-lit, decidedly un-cathedral like worship space. 


Here’s another example: about a year into my time at United Parish, the church I grew up at underwent the Open and Affirming Process, meaning, among many  things, that they were discerning whether to officially, officially approve of LGBT clergy, weddings, and members in their midst. This was a church that already had gay members. This was a church that had had a lesbian preacher. This was a church where the pushback was, “we already welcome everyone so why do we need to go through this process?”. This pushback was puzzling to my mother, who was the moderator at the time. 


What a lot of questioning, listening, and curiosity revealed was that people were scared that becoming an officially ONA church would lead to a sudden influx of members, and that this congregation, this tiny, 3-new-people-per-year, protestant congregation in one of the most catholic areas of our region, would get too big and lose the intimate, know-everyone-in-the-pews feeling. Even as they lamented the shrinking congregation, they were being fed by the sense of intimacy and familial community that they felt could only be provided by a small congregation. Ironically, finding comfort in a small congregation size was likely an adaptation to the very decline in membership that caused it. But I digress…


The point is that even when we know we need to adapt, even when we know that, like becoming ONA, a change is the right and just thing to do, we can still fear the losses we associate with that change. 


And when we are scared, when we face uncertainty, our instinct is to look for predictability, to maintain or regain control. As leaders we feel that as acutely as anyone else. United Parish is a church made up of incredibly responsible people. People who serve on committees and crunch numbers and teach church school and attend many weeknight meetings and deliver meals and all of this as volunteers! 


So we gather all our responsible minds together and try to plan a late pandemic/post covid Program and worship year, and are met often with more questions than answers. We want a return to the familiar, and we need to be safe, and there’s the Holy Spirit whispering to us that maybe we can try doing things a little differently, but …we’ve never done it that way before!


We have a joke in this industry, that the seven last words of the dying church are, "we've never done it that way before". Ironically, or perhaps, beautifully, when we look back through the history of our religious foreparents and traditions, from Moses, to Peter, to St Francis, to Martin Luther, enslaved peoples who adopted the religion of their captors and made it their own, to congregations that became LGBT affirming in defiance of their parent denomination, to our year-plus of virtual worship and programming, we see that on the whole, we've rarely let that stop us. 

When we look closely, we discover that perhaps courageously trying new ways of being the church, and trusting the Spirit to lead us, is indeed the way we've always done it!

We couldn’t have predicted the pandemic, and we adapted. There is still so much we have yet to learn, all we can predict is that the year after next will likely look very different from whatever next year looks like.


And therein lies the gift of the Holy Spirit. The gift is that we get a year to experiment with how the church of the future could be, without being tied to continuing it in perpetuity. The gift is that we are so steeped in change right now, our grasp on the ‘normal’ and ‘before times’ has been loosened just enough that we can begin to see the possibility shine through the cracks in our fear. 


To quote Reverend Peery, in his somewhat prophetic 2012 sermon, “The gift is that our responsibility is not to understand or to predict or to control the future.  What the church is becoming does not depend on our making it so!  

The Spirit of God is ahead of the Church--as it has always been--creating, agitating, opening new space, inviting....

And OUR responsibility is to offer that expression of the Church a hopeful welcome.”

Our “responsibility is to recognize where the Holy Spirit is moving and to try to keep up.”