Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers

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1 Kings 19:1-15a

We’ve never done it that way before.

We tried that before and it didn’t work.

No one does THAT in this church.

We don’t do things that way.

It’s too radical a change for us.

If only it were that easy.

When you’ve been around longer, you’ll understand why it can’t be done,

How dare you criticize what we’re doing.

We’ve been running this church since long before you were born.

Who gave you permission to change rules? [1]

Most pastors have heard these words in varying forms at some time or another. I have heard a number of these sayings, in one form or another, in every church I have served. And pastors with much longer ministries than my own will attest that these sayings have been around longer than I have. These sayings are like a protective coating, covering certain things in the church to keep them safe from question. They are called sacred cows. 

Sacred cows, contrary to what some believe, are not a reflection on the Hindu faith. Hindu people are vegetarians who revere cows as symbolic creatures but don’t worship them. [2] The truth is we worship sacred cows and they are cows we have created. “A sacred cow is generally an idea, an item, a concept, anything that is “too highly regarded to be open to criticism.” [3] These are the things in the church which people protect to the point of missing out on the mission of the church. These are things like: certain beliefs, buildings, cemeteries, lay leadership positions, holidays, annual gatherings and traditions, anything that the people of a church are likely to use as a means of control over the church. Because sacred cows are all about control.

And that is the issue with sacred cows, control. It is that there are controllers in the church who fear that change will bring an end to ‘their’ church, ‘their’ theology, ‘their’ spiritual life rather than seeing it as the natural evolution of the church’s ministry and their own growth. The issue is fear of change/new things/new people and the loss of control means they can no longer ‘feel safe’. And the controllers get away with it, because no one will challenge them. No one will question what they do out of fear or respect or just to keep from ‘making a scene.’ 

On the rare occasions when they are challenged, these controllers often defer to being in the right. They claim one of the statements above, usually ‘we don’t do it like that or we’ve never done it that way’, and they claim past precedent makes it and them right. “People who become comfortable with the present learn to live in the past.” [4] The fact that things were done a certain way in the past doesn’t make them right, it makes them a decision someone made in the past. They may be right. They may also be nothing more than a preference born out of fear. “Rightness” [is] always more about licensing requirements than about God;” [5] Rightness is used by controllers to keep people in their lane and maintain what is comfortable for the controller. And often, rather than argue the right, people let controllers with strong personalities, and they always have strong personalities, have their way.

Think about the passage we read. Elijah, the great prophet of God, for some Jews the greatest prophet of God, was on the run. The controllers of the kingdom—Ahab and Jezebel—were furious. Elijah led a group of people to slaughter the prophets of Ba’al and now Ahab and Jezebel wanted blood, Elijah’s blood. Elijah had challenged the prophets of Ba’al and God answered. Now, the king and queen challenged Elijah, and he went into hiding. Feeling scared and alone, Elijah runs off into the desert and finally finds a broom tree to sleep under. He is awakened by a messenger of God, an angel who feeds him twice before telling Elijah he will have a difficult journey ahead. Elijah eats and then takes shelter in a cave.

Elijah then has a conversation with God. God asks Elijah a question twice, “Why are you here, Elijah?” This conversation devolves into a lot of hemming and hawing from Elijah. ‘But God, I did the stuff you said and the people in charge got mad at me.’ ‘God, I did what you wanted but now I’m running for my life.’ God’s advice. You need new blood. God sends Elijah to anoint two kings and a successor for himself. Not only did Elijah need to prepare two new leaders for the throne, but he also needed to prepare someone to take his place as prophet. 

Controllers never train successors. Controllers assume they will stay in control because they’ve always been in control. And they aren’t always the committee chairs or in the leadership. But you know who they are. You’ve known them the entire you’ve been here because they are the people you either stay away from or acquiesce to. 

So, what do we do about them? 

Jesus didn’t call us to be safe. Jesus called us to be disciples and promised it would not be an easy road. The gospel of Matthew says, “A legal expert came and said to him, “Teacher, I’ll follow you wherever you go.”Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens, and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Human One has no place to lay his head.”Another man, one of his disciples, said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” [6] To be a disciple, you may not have all the comforts you want. To be a disciple, you may have set aside sacred cows that belong to other people. To be a disciple, you can’t play it safe. Safe is the territory of controllers. Safe is what keeps the wagons circled and the church stuck in one place. 

Good leadership is not controlling. Good leadership is permission giving. Permission giving doesn’t mean letting people run wild and do what they want. Part of permission giving is accountability to each other, but it is to each other not just one person. Permission giving says, “Try it! We’ll see where it goes.” Permission giving encourages people to new ministry and new ideas, whether we’ve done it that way before or not. Permission giving will make some people uncomfortable (especially the controllers) but others, especially those who are looking for growth and maturity, will breathe a sigh of relief. We need to give people permission to serve and to lead or the church dies, plain and simple. 

Does this mean we shun controllers, drive them out of the church? By no means! The grace and love of God is the grace and love of God for all, and all means all. Those who become controllers often do out of fear—fear the church may change, fear their beliefs may become obsolete, fear their way of life will no longer be the dominate way of life. Fear becomes the motivator and anytime fear becomes the motivator pain and suffering will become the result. Love must be the motivator, to help the controller see that giving permission is nothing to be afraid of. Love must be the driving force, the principle we follow, the practice we live into. I saw a meme the other day I loved which read, “I love you. You’re probably thinking, “You don’t even know me.” But if people can hate for no reason, I can love.

Why would I start with this as a sermon? Why begin a ministry with something this aggressive? Because the church at large is failing. We are failing at reaching the communities around us. We are failing at making disciples. We can make churches and fill them people and programs and politics and all the other trappings of success. But these are normally not places of discipleship and service. They are most often places of membership and hiding from the world, clubs where people can go to escape ‘the world’. We’re not here to escape the world, we’re here to care for Creation—in its entirety—and make disciples, followers of Jesus’ Way of living and being. 

I don’t yet know you. But after more than two decades of working in the church—twelve of those as a pastor—I have a pretty good handle on church people. I know every church has its personality types and one of those is the controller. Controllers can only control what we give them control over.

It’s time to help them set aside the need for control, the fear driving it an embrace the permission giving way of service. It’s time to fire up the grill. It’s time to clear out the fridge and have a barbeque. What are your sacred cows that need to be seasoned up and turned into patties for the grill? Are you a controller who needs to step aside? Then, repent. Change direction and become a permission giver. Better yet, find others to train and teach and be willing to hear them and their ideas as you prepare them for what God has for them. Surrender is the way of the disciple. Surrender to the will of God. Tear down your idols and worship the One True God.

[1] William Easum. Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers. Abingdon Press. (c) 1995. Nashville. p.10

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/religion/the-splainer-what-makes-the-cow-sacred-to-hindus/2015/11/05/acdde3e2-840c-11e5-8bd2-680fff868306_story.html

[3] https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/309250.html

[4] Easum, Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers

[5] https://www.patheos.com/blogs/freelancechristianity/faith-needs-many-things-but-it-doesnt-need-a-creed/

[6] Matthew 8:19-22

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