Adaptive Leadership During a Tsunami of Change

by Michael Usey, Acts 10.44-48 (NRSV)

A couple of weeks ago I preached about we Christians being vigilant about a possible coup, and so it has come to pass, a slow-motion coup attempt.  Our president is escalating his slapdash yet persistent attempts to overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s election victory, pushing for judges and for Republican state lawmakers and local officials in several battleground states to ignore the voters’ will and award him the electoral votes he needs for a second term.

Experts and even some Republican officials say he is all but certain to fail. States are in the process of certifying the results while his legal team so far has failed to advance his baseless case in state and federal courts. The clumsy effort nonetheless represents an extraordinary assault on American democracy, spearheaded by the president himself and with at least the tacit approval of his party.  

Trump was unable to win the presidency at the polls. He has been unable to win it through legal challenges to the vote. So he is trying now to win the cultural battle — by once again putting on an entertaining show for his supporters, a conspiracy thriller in which he plays the hero. It might not actually help him retain the keys to the Oval Office. But as The Atlantic’s Yoni Appelbaum pointed out, “Democracy depends on the consent of the losers.” Thursday’s dog-and-pony show was part of Trump’s effort to deny that consent to Biden. And that effort might well be successful: A new poll shows that half of Republicans believe that Trump really did win the presidency — even though he didn’t.

I mention this as a reminder that we need to stay awake, to have zanshin.  In karate, zanshin is the state of total awareness. It means being aware of one’s surroundings and enemies, while being prepared to react. A word to the sufficient is always wise.

Now to our passage: much has happened leading up to our reading for the day.  Catching up with the story is crucial for hearing today’s scripture.  A quick update:

Cornelius was a spiritual, but not religious Gentile living in Caesarea of some importance in the Roman legion and a member of the Italian Cohort–Cornelius had a vision.  It was a clear vision to send for an apostle of Jesus named Peter.

Peter–a devout and faithful Jew and an ardent follower of Jesus the Christ–Peter had a vision, too.  His was not so clear.  In fact, it was downright bizarre.  Peter was in Joppa, praying on the roof of his friend’s house, and he was hungry.  While the food was being prepared, he fell into a trance and saw a sheet being lowered down from the heavens, filled with all of the foods that good Jews were not allowed to touch, much less eat.  There was a voice, “Get up Peter, kill and eat.”  There was Peter’s response, “By no means Lord!  You know I can’t eat what is profane and unclean!” There was a counter-response, “What God has made, you must not call profane.” 

It happened twice more; and then, before Peter could make heads or tails out of the vision, the sheet was snatched up into heaven and Cornelius’ men were knocking at the door to take Peter on a trek from Joppa to Caesarea.  

The Spirit said “Go!” so Peter went.  Arriving at the Gentile house, he realized that Cornelius was having a genuine experience of God, so he started in, preaching, to explain some things about this God who was giving Cornelius visions.  Before Peter could finish his sermon, the Spirit short-circuited the usual order of things and poured through the room and all of a sudden the footprint of the church got a lot bigger.

Then this morning’s passage from the end of Acts 10:

No sooner were these words out of Peter’s mouth than the Holy Spirit came on the listeners. The believing Jews who had come with Peter couldn’t believe it, couldn’t believe that the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on “outsider” non-Jews, but there it was—they heard them speaking in tongues, heard them praising God. Then Peter said, “Do I hear any objections to baptizing these friends with water? They’ve received the Holy Spirit exactly as we did.” Hearing no objections, he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay on for a few days.

In the book of Acts, Peter stepped up to leadership in the fledgling church.  It was Peter who quickly became the voice for the eleven remaining apostles (1:16).  It was Peter who recognized the presence of the Spirit in the chaos of Pentecost (2:14).  Peter was the one who began to believe enough in the “greater things that would be done in Christ’s name” that he was able to heal, cure, and even raise someone from the dead. 

These days, we value people who can negotiate what leadership gurus call “adaptive challenges.”  Peter was an adaptive leader before adaptive leaders were cool.  Peter stood steady in a time when the future of the church was murky at best.  In many ways, because of Peter’s commitment, responsibility and wisdom, the body that has become the church caught a foothold and began to grow worldwide.

But the Spirit couldn’t leave well enough alone.  Just when Peter thought he had navigated the toughest challenges, the Spirit started crossing boundaries that were out of bounds.  The truth is, sometimes being a leader makes you tired.  Navigating adaptive challenges can wear you down.  Being responsible can feel like a burden. And being these things in the church is sometimes almost worse.

When Peter had his profane, rooftop vision, I can just imagine that he was ready to throw up his hands.  Really?  More change? “What God has made you shall not call profane.”  Why the face, God?  We’re crossing that line?

It’s about 30 miles between Joppa, where Peter was, and Caesarea, where Cornelius was.  I bet that journey for Peter was as confusing as it was tiring.  Maybe Peter was ticking off what he imagined to be the problems with what he was being asked to do:

  • How will I explain all of this to my siblings 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?
  • Why does this feel so wrong, so scary?
  • How can I be expected to be a leader in the church if I cannot predict or understand these questions?           

All I imagine that Peter was sure of on that 30-mile journey toward Caesarea was that God had a role for him to play–he was thinking that role was probably out of the same, well-worn playbook.  For Peter knew that he was someone God could count on.  He was the one who always knew what to say.  He was the established and authoritative leader.

So imagine Peter’s surprise when he showed up at the house of Cornelius and realized that whatever he was there for it did not all depend on him.  Imagine Peter’s surprise to find out that the Spirit had preempted his visit by one of the Spirit’s own.

What happens when Peter arrives at the house, and hears of Cornelius’ vision is that he all of sudden begins to better understand his own vision.  Peter resets to default mode by assuming the role of the responsible elder statesman, and Peter begins to preach. But the Spirit didn’t need those words. The Spirit didn’t need Peter’s responsible action.  The Spirit just showed right up and transformed the lives of Cornelius and his family, as well as Peter and his Church. Notice that this half-finished sermon of Peter’s is the last speech given by any apostle in the Book of Acts.  

With the inclusion of the Gentiles, the role for the established, responsible types like Peter shifts. Instead of serving as the stewards of the tradition, as the explainers of the truth, as the gatekeepers for the movement–now, their responsibility is to recognize where the Spirit is moving and to try to keep up. Peter immediately understood this:  “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

The theme for Fall 2020 at College Park has been Evolve.  We asked you to consider how your theology, your ethics, your beliefs have evolved for you over the last 10–15–20 years.  How has the Spirit been ahead of you, changing you, cause to evolve?  How has your mind been changed, and what changed it?  What’s been your theological evolution?  I’m not sure that what we believe about God affects God, but it does change us.  

Twenty years ago my family was in Copenhagen on sabbatical.  Dorisanne Cooper and Monica Citty Hix were my colleagues at the time, and our deacons were studying homosexuality and the church.  We already had a number of gay and lesbian members, and the deacons were considering how to move from unconscious acceptance to conscious acceptance.  While I was in Denmark, I told Ann that I believed that the Spirit was leading me to perform same sex weddings, something she and I had talked about and considered, but not yet resolved.  Ann was cautiously open, but somewhat fearful such a position might doom our church.  But we both strongly believed that there was no incongruity between being gay and being Christian, so then what could keep my fellow College Parkers who happened to be gay or lesbian, from the benefits of full membership, including Christian marriage?  We couldn’t think of a reason, and we both felt the Spirit’s call to keep moving.

In the meantime, College Park had on its own and being led by the Spirit, selected its first openly gay man to be a deacon at our church.  Again, like Peter, we were racing to keep up with what God’s wild Spirit was doing ahead of us!

Consider all aspects of our lives that we are racing to keep up with God’s Spirit: creation justice, the push to slow global warming, the work of racial equality and repentance, a fight against national fascism, a counter to the false witness of a so-called Christian nation that has wed church and state.  And of course how are we going to love those whom we are close to whose worldview and politics are so radically different than ours?

God’s church that we have given our lives to faces a tsunami of change.  Will our church exist after covid 19, and if so, what might it look like? Our structure.  Our worship.  The ways we communicate.  Our place in the culture.  Our expectations of membership.  The kinds of people who are drawn to our ministry and mission.  Inclusion of all people, and beyond inclusion, celebration of their diversity. The places where the gospel needs to be lived right here in Greensboro and North Carolina.  It’s enough to wear you out, especially if you feel responsible to understand and control and usher in that change. So here is the gift of this Thanksgiving season, on this Sunday which is the end of the liturgical year.  A gift that I see reflected in the twinkle of the eyes of many members of our congregation when they talk about the future of the church. The gift is that our responsibility is not to understand or to predict or to control that 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, trouble-making, opening new space and holding that space, listening, inviting.