When I was a kid, we used to go periodically to Smyrna or Marietta, two towns about half an hour from Douglasville where I grew up. We would go drop off various bills, drop in to various outlet stores, and usually, if my sister and I were lucky, go out to eat. It was usually some place like Burger King® or Long John Silvers® but sometimes we would go to Fat Boys, a local greasy spoon that was near where my parents first lived after they got married.
If we were really lucky, we went to a place called Round the Corner. It was a burger place that specialized in coming up with a myriad of ways to stack things on top of a piece of charbroiled beef. They also had a few other odd little eccentricities like having telephones in the booths that you used to call the kitchen for your order and kitschy decorations. They have since gone out of business, replaced with Good Times Burgers by the parent company. But while Round the Corner was in business, the thing that drew people for the ten years or so that it was open in the Atlanta area was the burgers and my personal favorite – still to this day – was their chili burger.
I apologize in advance for the comments I’m about to make. I realize that we are still a few hours from eating dinner and that may cause some of you a bit of distress but bear with me. This burger was a force to be reckoned with. It was two quarter pound pieces of ground beef, grilled medium and laid out open faced on two halves of a burger bun with mustard. They took beef chili with just a touch of spicy peppers and ladled over the top of these two pieces of meat and bread. Then, they topped off all of that with shredded cheddar cheese and added fries and a Pepsi on the side.
I had not yet started to go to church with my family, but that was a sacred meal, a meal that made me feel as though there were something special about the world. It was the atmosphere, the weird little touches like the telephone ordering system, that made the restaurant a special place, especially for a ten-year-old kid. The chili burger is still one of my favorite meals and if I find a place that has one, I try it on principle but no one has ever been able to top that special mix of flavors to this day.
We all have certain things – food, places, ideas – that we regard as sacred, meaning they are “devoted or dedicated to a deity or to some religious purpose; consecrated” or “entitled to veneration or religious respect by association with divinity or divine things; holy”, set apart for special use or special purpose. The question that we need to ask, however, is are they worthy of that veneration, that elevation to a status above all other things.
William Easum wrote in his book Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers, that sacred cows are things that are “immune from criticism and attack.” He also goes on to talk about how the idea of control is behind the need for sacred cows saying, “Control is the sacred cow of established churches, and it needs to be ground in gourmet hamburger.” Obviously we mean no offense to our Hindu or vegetarian friends, but the metaphor here is helpful in seeing the greater point and for that matter a point that is a part of our scripture reading for the day. My hope is that we will see the sacred cows that exist in our lives, our worship, and our churches and be able to deal with them and move forward.
Sacred Cows at Mount Sinai
It was a long road for the Israelites from Egypt to Mount Sinai in more ways than one. By this point in the journey, Moses and the children of Abraham had traveled through parted waters, across deserts, been fed manna and quail, and been given the law and instructions for festivals and the tabernacle. During the last part, Moses is on the mountain getting the clay tablets with the law and the people are at the bottom, waiting anxiously for something to happen. In fact, they are beginning to lose faith in God and Moses,
The people saw that Moses was taking a long time to come down from the mountain. They gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come on! Make us gods who can lead us. As for this man Moses who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we don’t have a clue what has happened to him.” – Exodus 32:1
Notice how their fear is overcoming their faith here, “We want a god like the ones we remember from Egypt, the ones we can see and touch.” The truth is if you live in a culture long enough, you adapt your faith practices to your cultural practices. The Israelites had been in Egypt for four hundred years, long enough to notice and pick up some of the religious and cultic practices of Egyptian religion.
I feel like Aaron often gets vilified by the description in this passage but the truth is, I can’t say that I might not have done the same thing. Camped in a desert beneath a mountain that covered in clouds with thunder booming and lightning flashing. Spread out before him, a people who were running from slavery to a promise that didn’t seem like it was turning out. The whole lot of them scared and wanting to find a place to settle down and be for a while. Aaron does what any good leader would do: he tries to keep the people together and give them hope. He tries to give them something to focus on beyond the situation in order to calm them and restore their sense of faith.
The account goes like this,
“So Aaron told them, “Take off the gold rings from the ears of your wives and sons and daughters and bring them to me.” They all did it; they removed the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from their hands and cast it in the form of a calf, shaping it with an engraving tool. The people responded with enthusiasm: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from Egypt!” Aaron, taking in the situation, built an altar before the calf. Aaron then announced, “Tomorrow is a feast day to God!” Early the next morning, the people got up and offered Whole-Burnt-Offerings and brought Peace-Offerings. The people sat down to eat and drink and then began to party. It turned into a wild party! – Exodus 32:2-6
At this point, Moses has not yet come down from the mountain. The law that we read in Exodus 20, particularly the second commandment, “Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. Do not bow down to them or worship them…” has not yet been given. Aaron has no idea what God and Moses have talked about, he is simply trying to make the best of a bad situation. He gives the people a focus of worship and the opportunity to divert their attention from the fear and wondering as they wait for Moses. I think of it as being similar to what I have done at times when my own children were toddlers. I focus on the two D’s: distractions and diversions. Find something that makes them focus on something else and give them a different direction to go in until you figure out where you’re going.
What Aaron and the Children of Abraham are doing is not unlike what we would do under the circumstances. He heard crying children and he tried to sooth them. I think Aaron was not trying to lead the Hebrews to worship a false God, but a false image of the real God. I believe he was honestly trying to the best of his ability to give them hope and comfort in a frightening time.
Worshiping Our Own Sacred Cows
I think sometimes, it’s easy to make and worship sacred cows but worshiping a sacred cow is an exercise in missing the point. I think when we do, we are worshiping a representation of God and not actually worshiping God. The truth is, it’s easy to do because anything that we worship – that we bow down to and offer honor, reverence, and obedience to – can be a sacred cow.
A few examples:
- When we worship the rules, instead of the Ruler or better said, when we worship the Bible instead of the God that the Bible points us toward.
- When we worship the building we meet in instead of the God who blessed its construction.
- When we worship the country we live in instead of the God who privileged us to live here.
- When we worship the past victories and success instead of the God who is leading us into the future or as William Easum said it, “People who become comfortable in the present, learn to live in the past.”
- When we worship control and comfort instead of the God who calls us to be led in the moment.
Sacred cows are sneaky in that they come along slowly and in stages. We never see that we have made the switch until we are so comfortable with it that we cannot tell the difference between God and the sacred cow. There is a great example from Jesus ministry as he is traveling through Samaria. It is midday and he stops off at the well in town to get a drink of water. As he does a woman comes to draw water, unusual because women do this early in the morning so as not to have to carry the large jugs of water in the heat of the day. But this woman has reason to avoid the other women of the town. She is a social pariah, an outcast by virtue of having had five husbands and is now living with a man who is not her husband. Her social status and standing among the people of the village is below the bottom rung so she avoids them even at the cost of braving the intense desert heat.
Her exchange with Jesus is interesting. Jesus asks for water and the woman is startled. Jews did not talk to Samaritans. Samaritans were regarded as half-breed traitors before God who worshiped falsely in a place other than Jerusalem. They were not true Jews in the eyes of Jerusalem Jews and it was more likely that Jesus would spit on her than talk to her.
Yet, Jesus engages her in conversation about living water and drinking from a well that never runs dry. The woman is suitably impressed and honors Jesus by recognizing him as a prophet. She then throws out what she thinks is her trump card,
“Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you and your people say that it is necessary to worship in Jerusalem.” – John 4:19-20
In other words, the woman is saying, “We can trace our spiritual lineage back to Jacob at this well and Moses on Mount Gerazim. We have the better claim to worshiping in the right place.”
Jesus deftly gets to the greater issue behind the argument and moves into the core issue at hand: who do we worship? What is worship? How do we worship?
Jesus responds to her,
“Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you and your people will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You and your people worship what you don’t know; we worship what we know because salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the time is coming — and is here! — when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way. 24 God is spirit, and it is necessary to worship God in spirit and truth.” – John 4:21-24
In his answer, Jesus answers each of these questions. Who do we worship? We worship the one true God, the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob. The God who is god of all, not just Jews and Samaritans, but of everyone in all of creation, those who have heard and those who have not heard. What is worship? It is the recognition of who God is and the response we have to that realization. The word used in the passage means, “to bow one’s self in adoration and homage” to God. How do we worship? We worship in spirit and in truth or another way of saying it, we bow ourselves in adoration and homage with all of our being, loving the truth of God and who God is.
Grilling Sacred Cows
As believers, I think it is time to give up. I think we should give up our preferences in favor of preferring the way of Jesus. What does that look like? I think it starts when we see our sacred cows for what they are: grill bait. It’s time to put our preferences and ourselves to the fire that we might be purified and shaped to a Christ-like image.
It is time to turn things around to their proper perspective.
- To worship the God that the Bible points us toward.
- To worship the God who blessed it’s the physical things we have.
- To worship the God who privileged us to live in the freedom we live in.
- To worship the God who is leading us into the future.
- To worship the God who calls us to be led in the moment.
Will we be afraid? Yes. Will we be uncomfortable? More than likely. Will we change? I hope so. True worship of God calls us to yield ourselves to God that we may be changed to be made like Jesus. True worship opens the door for us to see God in ways we have never seen with an understanding of God that we have never had. If we are willing to live in the moment, this moment now and not one from yesteryear, and if we are willing to sacrifice our comfort for uncertainty, and if we are willing to be clay before the hands of God, we can be the church God has called us to be in this time and place. Let us be willing, that the message of the gospel reaches out beyond ourselves to the community around us. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.
 (Easum 1995), p.11
 (Easum 1995), p. 13
 Exodus 20:4-5
 (Easum 1995), pg. 36