Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost 2006 (Proper 17, Year A)

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on September 3, 2006. 
Based on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 (Proper17, Year B).

“Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers.” On rare occasion, it’s worth picking up a book based on the title alone. Titles like “Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars” or “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” “Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers” is the title of a popular book on church growth. And beyond the catchy title there’s actually some good stuff in it. Some good reflections on how to lead change in a congregational setting.

I’ve always been intrigued by the whole idea of the sacred cow; how certain programs or institutions become sacrosanct. The concept itself derives from the Hindu tradition of venerating cows. In Hinduism cows are seen as matriarchal figures, revered for their gentleness and qualities of nurture. They are symbols of the sanctity of all life and of the earth that gives much while asking nothing in return. Hindus do not literally worship cows, yet the cow holds an honored place and the sacred cow is thought to be more important than any human life. But there’s a dark side to this as when during times of severe famine people literally starve to death while surrounded by their sacred cows. No one ever suggests using the cows for food since, of course, to do so would be sacrilege.

We use the term “sacred cow” to refer to something immune from criticism or attack; things that no one dares tamper with or change. Every institution has its own version of the sacred cow. And churches are infamous breeding grounds. Some classic sacred cows in church settings are the music program, the liturgy, service times, the parish secretary, the church kitchen, the list goes on and on. The resistance to change, the attitude of “we’ve always done it that way” seems to be especially powerful in church. Which is why anyone seeking to make changes in some churches, anyone attempting to slay the sacred cow, ends up coming across like a bull in a china shop. 

And over the years, religious groups of all stripes have been guilty of sacrificing faith to save the tradition, even when everyone knows that the traditions were instituted by humans and not by God. But we get used to things being the way they’re “supposed” to be even if it’s only been that way during our own lifetimes. It’s more comfortable to cling to things we know rather than open our hearts to the possibility of transformation.

In this passage from Mark, Jesus is really attacking the whole notion of the sacred cow. Because a sacred cow is really an idol created by human beings. It is something held up as ordained by God but is really just something created and instituted and clung to by human hands. Jesus is saying that the Law of Moses can become a sacred cow when it becomes more sacred than the God who ordained it. That’s the point Jesus was making in response to the accusations about his disciples eating with unwashed hands. They were violating the letter of the Law even while they were keeping its spirit. And Jesus never wants us to lose sight of the spirit of the Law – the spirit of God’s love that draws us deeper into relationship with God and one another. He bids us to never lose sight of the big picture of faith, which transcends anything we ourselves have created.

In this case, it’s not that following the law is a bad thing. And I certainly don’t want my own kids to use this story against me when I ask them to wash their hands before dinner. I can almost hear it now, “Jesus didn’t make his disciples wash their hands.” But if following the Law is done with integrity and authenticity, if it comes from the heart and draws people to God it is a good thing. Jesus himself says that he did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. He’s pointing out that the Law itself has become a sacred cow. The Pharisees have given into the great temptation to worship the Law rather than God; to turn the Law into a sacred cow. And Jesus has no patience for this.

Churches aren’t the only breeding grounds for sacred cows. Sacred cows pervade our lives. And they can be dangerous to our spiritual health because they often leave out any room for growth. Our own sacred cows tend to crop up in areas where we seek control. Where we try hard to control situations even when we know they’re ultimately out of control. And so we cling to the identity we derive from our jobs or our hobbies or our educational accomplishments or our money or our relationships. None of which are bad things – but all of which need to be seen in the context of the only thing that is truly sacred: our relationship with Jesus Christ.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2006

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