A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 19, 2013 (Pentecost)
“Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers.” Occasionally, it’s worth judging a book by its cover and reading it based solely on the title. Books like “Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars” or “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” or “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” “Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers” is the title of a popular book on church growth and, although I bought it because of the catchy title, there’s actually some good stuff in it.
I’ve always been intrigued by the whole notion of sacred cows. 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.
In our own culture, we use the term “sacred cow” to refer to something immune from criticism or attack. It’s fascinating to me how certain programs or traditions become sacrosanct within an organization. Sometimes there’s good reason and sometimes it’s part of a community’s own cherished narrative even though the reasoning no longer applies or it made sense fifty years ago but rationally and logically time and energy and resources could be better spent elsewhere.
Churches, not surprisingly, are infamous breeding grounds for sacred cows. Resistance to change and the attitude of “we’ve always done it that way” are especially powerful forces in communities of faith. The reason the classic “How many Episcopalians does it take to change a lightbulb” joke is amusing is because there’s some truth in there. The answer, of course, being “Change?! My grandmother donated that light bulb!”
But if there’s anything that this day of Pentecost demonstrates it’s that God isn’t interested in manmade sacred cows. Yes, tradition is important but nothing is off the table when it comes to our individual or communal faith lives. After Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, the disciples didn’t gather with the intention that they’d start speaking in tongues. They got together, the Holy Spirit descended upon them and look what happened — the gathered disciples were transformed into the Church, that holy and sacred and sometimes frustrating mystery.
But before we go on it’s worth asking what exactly is this Holy Spirit that we celebrate today? As with anything termed “spirit” it can feel fairly elusive. It’s hard to get our minds around let alone our hands. The Holy Spirit is kind of like a holy vapor or, more theologically, the breath of God. John calls the Holy Spirit the Advocate, indicating Jesus’ continuing presence in the Church. Paul describes it as the force that unites us to Christ and gives each one of us various talents and abilities to be used for building up the Church as the Body of Christ. In Acts it’s the power of God, a burning fire that brings the church to new and unexpected places.
One thing’s for sure. We can’t control the Holy Spirit. It blows where it may; it can’t be tamed or contained or controlled and that makes us a bit wary of it. When it comes to both our own lives and the church, we like to call the shots. We like to plot our course and make our own decisions — we’re Americans for God’s sake! Manifest Destiny, bootstraps, independence. We’re not going to let some ephemeral wind get in the way of our best laid plans.
The problem is, we have no choice. If you remember the old King James Version of the Bible you’ll recall the phrase from John’s gospel: “The wind bloweth where it listeth,” which basically means the Holy Spirit can do whatever the heck it wants. And that can make us uncomfortable, a reminder that we’re not fully in control of either our own lives or the life of the church.
One of the few definitions I actually remember from sixth grade science is the one for inertia. Mr. Knipp taught us that anything at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. He also had a habit of smacking a yard stick on the desk of anyone not paying attention which is why I remember this. In other words, inertia is a powerful force. If left alone, nothing will move an object. Our spiritual lives can quickly become inert if we don’t tend to them and nurture them; if we don’t actively participate in the life of a faith community; if we don’t intentionally set aside some time for prayer and reflection and silence, as elusive as that may be.
But the true outside force is the Holy Spirit. It’s what draws us deeper into relationship with Jesus and makes us take notice of the divine presence. Sometimes subtly, like a gentle breeze; sometimes blatantly, like a violent wind. It counteracts our tendencies toward spiritual apathy and inertia and keeps us alive and vibrant. But not without some risk as the Spirit has no problem whatsoever leaving even our most beloved sacred cows in its wake.
Ultimately, the coming of the Holy Spirit transforms us from people who passively follow Jesus into a faithful community of disciples poised to act in his name. God calls us not just to go to church but to be the church — and that’s a major distinction. We are not passive observers of holy things but active participants in Christ’s message of peace and salvation. We are baptized into a living faith, not one based on nostalgia. We may well have happy memories of the way things used to be and tradition is a bedrock of our faith. But the Holy Spirit continually blows new life into the Church, challenging us, drawing us out of our comfort zones, and generally wreaking havoc with the mantra of “we’ve always done it that way.”
Sacred cows do 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 our 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. Timothy E. Schenck 2013