By Pastor Diane Schmitz
Spiritual Gifts and Sacred Cows: What kind of a sermon title is that! Anyway, we know about those people with THE spiritual gifts - the prophets, the pastors, the teachers, and the healers. What does that have to do with us?
Listen as the Word of God imaginatively grows.
"The gifts he gave were that some would be mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters, some would be farmers, some would be storytellers, some would be community leaders, some would invent microchips that change the way the world is connected, some would work as janitors at schools, gardeners in pea patches or help repair appliances. Some would sing, comfort the grieving, help people out with their groceries, some would give loans to new homeowners, some would show people how to work computers, some would tend to animals, some would be volunteer firefighters." The list goes on and on.
If we really believe God has gifted each of us uniquely does it make sense that all our gifts are going to fall into a few categories? A spiritual gift is one that gives the gift of the Spirit whenever and wherever it is utilized. We know that good ministers, prophets, healers so this. But what about the rest of us?
When we are living an engaging life - working out of our own passions and infused by the Spirit - we are different people. Our own ability to teach and be prophetic is set free. We are alive in a way that is contagious; we are alive in a way that strengthens the body of Christ to meet the challenges of today's world.
What is your gift? What is it that you do with an abundance of love? What actions fill you with joy and a sense of timelessness?
What prevents you from expressing your gifts?
A couple of weeks ago I was browsing in a church library and I was intrigued by the title of a book there by William Easum. It's called "Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers." I began reading it when I got home. I was halfway through before I stopped. This was a book that made me think differently about some things.
Webster defines a sacred cow as "one immune from criticism or attack." The term comes from the Hindu veneration of the cow. Sacred cows are more important than people, causing some people to literally starve to death while surrounded by their sacred cows - no one ever considers the possibility of using the cows for food.
Easum claims that control is a Sacred Cow of established churches. I want to focus for a few minutes on the sacred cows in our established lives and how they impact the ways we do or do not utilize our gifts or follow our calling.
Here's a hint about the Sacred Cows in our lives; you can hear their mooing when you hear comments like this: "We've never done it that way before." "We tried that before and it didn't work." "We don't do things that way." "When you've been around as long as I have, you'll understand why it can't be done." Or to make it more personal: "It's way too radical of a change for me." "I would never dare to upset things like that." "I know people will think I'm crazy if I make that decision." "But, the rules don't allow for me to do something like that."
Think about what you've been told it means in our culture to:
Be a good parent
Be a nice son or daughter
Be a good provider
Be a responsible worker -
Listen for words like "always" "should" "never" and "never ever"
Reflect on what you've been told by our culture and churches it means to:
Be a man
Be a woman
Be a Christian
Be a successful church
Now values are important and I don't mean to imply that everything should be laizze faire and there should be no agreements about actions that are harmful to others and us. But, in many cases, we have gone way beyond the intention of such guidelines and made them into ironclad laws that restrict rather than support abundant life and creative communities.
We have decided that control and approval are more important than freedom, grace and trust.
And we Christians are just as bad as anyone else at this. This bothers me. We, who profess a faith and trust in a God actively involved and working in our lives, make many of our decisions based out of fear. Every time we make a decision based on a mindset of fear and scarcity, the Body of Christ weakens. Every time we limit who we are and how we use our unique gifts, the Body of Christ falters. Every time we aim to control others because their boldness and different vision make us anxious, the Body of Christ loses the opportunity to give birth to some new life for which the Church hungers.
What does the life of Jesus tell us about these situations? In the passage from Matthew we hear how Jesus challenges the way Sabbath has been made into a Sacred Cow. Notice his reply to the charges made against him in this passage is not to say, "Yes, it's no big deal - go ahead and break the Sabbath." Rather, he reaches deep into his foundational understanding of the value of human life. He reframes the questions to ask what is the loving, caring response to another human being in this situation. Jesus saw people, dear to God, where others saw only rule and custom. We are reminded about how easily we become blind to the intent and purpose of a law and instead of serving the people, the people serve it.
What laws do you serve? What customs dictate how you live your life? What rules govern your response to your community, your church? Where do the Sacred Cows live in your life?
I don't know about you but most of my experience with cows is observing them from afar peacefully grazing in a field. However, I still remember my 3rd grade trip to the farm where we given the opportunity to milk the cows. Granted, I was smaller then but I was shocked to see how big cows are up close and personal! I gained a healthy respect for them that day.
I picked up these cows at a store the other day. I wanted to look at them and see what came to mind. One thing I realized is that when cows are calves they are a lot less intimidating. I also was reminded that these full grown cows do supply us with a basic nourishment- in this case milk. There is reason to respect and give thanks for the cow. But, that is different than coming to think that milk - and that particular milk - is the only or the best nourishment for us in all circumstances.
Easum notes that Sacred Cows masquerade as our closest friends. Look at this cow that I got from a friend. Soft, cuddly, comforting. This cow has been a companion to someone for a long time now. It looks innocent. How could it possibly be an idol? But, that is just the danger of our refusal to question those things that seem most benign in our lives. How often we transfer our reliance on God to a reliance on a particular Sacred Cow
Sacred cows do not have to be either/or situations. If something is a sacred cow it has come to be that way because it has meaning for us. That meaning is important. But, it is when that meaning becomes so big and all encompassing for us that we make it an idol that a problem occurs. We know this story - we know the golden calf - we know that we are to have no idols before God. And yet... and yet... this particular Sacred Cow seems like such a GOOD thing and I'm SO used to it and I'd SO hate to let it go and not have it to depend upon. But, that is what Jesus calls us to consider when those idols, those sacred cows stand in the way of us using our spiritual gifts and building up the Body of Christ.
I put a couple of these cows together and imagined a person in between. It's close but there's still room to maneuver. But, when I add a third cow, the person is sandwiched in. All her world as she knows it is cows. She sees them as sacred but she cannot see the sacredness calling to her from beyond the cows. This is a scary thought because with the reflection I've been doing, I'm clear that there are more than 3 Sacred Cows I tend to let guide my life.
The scripture passage from Ephesians reminds us of our responsibility to fully develop our gifts and grow into the strength and power of the body of Christ. We are to do this by speaking the truth in love - the truth to ourselves; the truth to others. The Ephesians writer cautions: "We must no longer be tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming." We also must no longer be trampled, hemmed in, and weighted down by the Sacred Cows in our lives that deaden our response to each other and all of life.
I have a friend named Jim who lives in California. His whole story is too long to relate here. But, it is a powerful story of a man who one day woke up and realized his whole life had been lived by the guidance of Sacred Cows created by others. Now Jim found himself questioning everything. His world of meaning crumbled. All he knew was that the answers he had were not the answers out of which he could live a Spirit-filled, faith-filled life. Jim, 50 years old, and a diabetic since his youth, quit his job, cashed in his pension, and bought an old VW van in which to live and travel. He was absolutely committed to paring down his life in a way that would allow him to see and hear clearly what his gifts were and how he should live his life.
He now consciously chose each morning how to fill the day And he was lonely, and anxious, and determined. Every day he prayed passionately for revelation. After six months he returned home and began living a different kind of life.
As I heard bits and pieces of this story as they occurred I became especially interested in people's reactions to Jim's choices. Much of the response was negative. They chided him for his irresponsibility in cashing in his pension. They couldn't understand how a grown man could live in a van. "How can you travel alone when no one knows where you are, especially when you are a diabetic?" They asked. They ridiculed his seemingly 60s era response to his pain by taking off in a VW van. Oh, a few people said they'd love to do something similar but they couldn't because - you fill in the blank. A couple of times Jim told people that he had decided to take an early retirement. That reframing significantly changed peoples- responses; it made his actions seem more normal. But, when he simply shared that he had quit his job to search for meaning and truth in his life people generally thought he was unstable. Too many sacred cows pushed out of his life; too many sacred cows familiar to all of us. But, now Jim lives a life out of his own gifts. He walks with a lighter step and laughs more. He has a relationship that supports him becoming a fuller expression of God; his work is meaningful to him and utilizes his particular gifts. Everyday he impacts someone's life with his kindness and generosity.
Now this is not a neat and tidy story. It involved broken relationships and situations that were not always handled in the best of ways. And our stories will be different. But, it does remind us that Sacred cows do not fall easily or without cost. Let us recall what is the ending line of our reading from Matthew this morning. After Jesus has defended the disciples eating the corn and after he has healed a man on the Sabbath, "the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him."
Make no mistake; when you encounter a Sacred Cow in your life and decide to have it move over, you are going to need your reliance on God. You are going to need prayer; a willingness to be led by the Spirit, and the guidance that comes to us from the life that Jesus lived.
These coming months as you make room for new life to be birthed in this church it is likely that you may bump into some Sacred Cows. When you do – practice saying “thank you!” for this is the Spirit's way of guiding us along the path. This is the way God shakes us up so that we may shake out that which may have worked for us in the past but is no longer helpful.
You are here in the life of this church at this very moment for a reason. There is a gift you bring in your own unique way that is needed to build up the body of Christ in this community. God is calling you - you in particular. Move those Sacred Cows to the side and boldly step forward with courage, with reliance on God and with an abiding love for one another. The Cows may be big - but God is bigger. There are an abundance of possibilities awaiting your encounter; the One who loves you calls you forward.