Holy Cows, and Chickens and Bees

Message preached April 21, 2002
by Ellis Shenk
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon Isaiah 58:3-11 and 1 John 3:16-24

order of worship

No, I m not going to talk about the sacred cows of India. Today is Heifer International Sunday. And as most of you know, Heifer International is about more than cows. It is about sharing sustaining life - animal life in this case. You might even think of it as a way of breaking bread with others around the world. That indeed makes them holy cows - and holy chickens and holy bees. On your donation list, you will note that Heifer International also distributes trees, both to provide fodder for the livestock and to protect and improve the land for farming.

I thought to remind you too about.... the holy goats, but I feared that some might become theologically disoriented with those particular sounds trailing one after the other. But now you have already heard the story of Beatrice s Goat and so you know the good that the gift of one goat can do.

For those who don t know about Heifer International, allow me to review its history briefly. Brethren pacifist Dan West from Indiana, joined a Quaker team to minister to the needy people of Spain, caught up in their civil war in the late 1930 s. As he repeated the steps of distributing milk to people suffering from the conflict, his practical farmer s mind went into the problem solving mode. Though giving milk was a good thing, would it not be much better to have the milk readily at hand, and to use the grass that grew on the surrounding hillsides to feed these needy people.

Shortly after he returned from that war, the larger World War II spread across Africa, Europe, Asia and the Pacific. Dan West was concerned about what to do as a pacifist, and especially how to help the suffering people after the war would end. Other

Brethren joined in his idea, and Heifer Project was formed. An initial shipment of heifers was sent to Puerto Rico, including heifers named Faith, Hope and Charity.

In 1945, after World War II ended, the need to replace dairy cattle and draft animals killed or sacrificed for meat was critical throughout war-torn Europe. The fledgling United Nations, in which former Brethren Service chairman Andrew Cordier then served as senior staff, sized up the problem and soon set up programs to ship cattle in specially adapted ships to Europe. Brethren leader M. R. Zigler conferred with UN agency staff, and then recruited sea-going cowboys, Brethren, Mennonite and other concerned farmers, to care for the heifers as they made their week or ten day ocean journey.

Dozens upon dozens of men joined this effort, traveling to Europe and Asia. When Europe finally opened up to church relief agencies, Heifer Project expanded and a more direct channel from donor to recipient was set up and a broader church base was formed to sustain the effort. It was in this phase of the program that in October 1953, I also had opportunity to cross the Atlantic with four other cowboys and about 160 heifers, on my way to four years of volunteer service in Europe.

Heifer International has flourished in the nearly fifty years since that time, adapting its program to help meet the needs for livestock, poultry, draft animals, bees, fish and the reproduction, management and improvement of such animals. Brethren and other churches continue to provide HPI leadership. But fundraising reaches a very wide American support base.

I am glad that this congregation continues to support Heifer International. Today I want to reflect with you about the reasons why we consider this an important relationship for our church.

In Isaiah 58:3-11, which was read earlier, the prophet Isaiah admonishes his people about sharing food with the hungry and shelter with the refugee, giving clothes for the naked, taking off the chains of injustice, removing the yoke of oppression, and spending themselves on behalf of the hungry. Would that Ariel Sharon and Israeli leaders in Jerusalem, as well as our own leaders in Washington spent more time pondering the security that this kind of treatment of our neighbors, near and far, would offer.

Isaiah told the Israelites that God really prefers this sharing to their fasting. In doing these acts they will open a new dawn and bring quick healing. There will be light rising in the darkness. Isaiah makes it clear that he is not peddling some sort of Jewish legalism; rather he portrays a spirit that he sees God requiring of his people. Though he does not use the word, it is Shalom or peace that he predicts from such acts.

The New Testament calls for sharing material goods in language no less clear than the Old Testament s. The scripture in I John 3: 17 really makes the sharing of material possessions a sort of litmus test of the presence of God in our lives. This was not a sugarcoated statement to avoid offending people. How much more direct could John be? If anyone has material possessions and sees this brother in need, but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.

Dan West and other Brethren leaders sixty years ago took challenging steps to put life into such words for their times. But what might those words mean in today s world. For starters, I believe it requires us to ask anew the same question Jesus was asked by the lawyer after that lawyer heard the parable of the Good Samaritan: Who is my neighbor? Though he sought to shun responsibility, Jesus turned the question on the lawyer in a way that leaves none of us off the hook.

In a world where our oil may come from Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, or Venezuela, or our computer parts come from Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan or Thailand, our clothing from the hands of Indians, Bangladeshis, Chinese, Mexicans, Guatemalans, the vegetables in our supermarkets from Central and South America - who is not our neighbor? Drive down the streets of Washington, New York, San Francisco or Dallas and you will see signs that our neighborhood stretches around the world.

Yet all sorts of forces conspire to keep our concept of the neighborhood small. We are even now still on the fringes of a patriotic and nationalistic frenzy in which network news somehow find it necessary to put all the evening news under such rubrics as America s War on Terrorism. I find that offensive because of how it seeks to separate me emotionally from my neighbors and turn me against them.

Here in this congregation, after September 11th, we determined that many did not know very much about Islam. Four hours on the subject didn t make us experts, but perhaps set the foundation for critical listening, further learning, and acceptance that others indeed may be genuine in viewing God in a way quite different from our own faith.

Dare I suggest that we also need to set aside special time to learn about our neighbors around the world. Yes, I know, we have accepted a sister relationship with the Church of the Brethren in San Juan de la Maguana in the Dominican Republic, and have broken bread with the pastor and his wife. But how much do we really know about the country in which they live, the problems they face or their aspirations for the future. If that s our sister church, one might assume that what we know about other churches and nations is significantly less. We indeed have little knowledge, and less understanding, of who our world neighbors are, and why so many of them appear to live in abject poverty.

Americans do get fantastic video footage of nations in disaster and conflict. Remember the famines in Ethiopia, armed conflict in Somalia, civil war in the Congo, government attempts to control cocaine in Colombia, Muslim separatists in the Philippines, the war in Afghanistan and now the plight of the Palestinians. But the images fade, a new crisis is placed in focus, and one may well assume that the old crisis has been resolved. But that is not the case. Our Christian interaction with our neighbors across the globe cannot simply be based on the latest media coverage.

Some of you are aware of my 25 years of living abroad in Germany, Austria, Italy, Puerto Rico, Bangladesh and Ecuador. Living in another culture teaches one that other nations and cultures have priorities, problems and plans that differ markedly from ours. But living abroad is also a bit like time travel - the United States you leave is not the same country to which you return. There are changes in people, values, the artifacts of society such as cars, phones, computers. I believe that it would astound you to hear the things that changed in the years between my 1953 voyage to Germany and 1983 when we settled back in the United States as a family. Ask me about it when you have a few hours to listen and chat about it.

There was another absence and return that was significant for me, and which I want to share with you. This was the absence from the Church of the Brethren while I worked in Bangladesh, Ecuador and then New York City. It s good to be back in a Brethren fellowship. Perhaps you share my feeling that going back after being away nurtures nostalgia for the old, and also anticipation about the progress and positive change one will find. But things are never like they were, or at least like we remember them. There both pleasant surprises, and unanticipated disappointments.

I am not unique as a Brethren to have gone to the other side of the waters or the other side of the tracks to live and serve in the wider neighborhood. In fact, there were many Brethren from 1945 until now who shared this experience, mostly in Brethren Volunteer Service, but also in other roles and capacities.

As I come back to the Church of the Brethren, to a great extent, as expected, people with those service experiences have matured and continued in wider roles of service and leadership. One of the disappointments though, is that there appears to be a real loss of the vision and the passion we shared for a better world, and for keeping the Church of the Brethren focused on and connected to that larger world. Perhaps you will credit that to youthful enthusiasm... the dream of being bridges between people in conflict, of keeping connection between our communities and the communities where we had served. But in my view after getting back, not only have Brethren lost much of the vision of those earlier days. Brethren have also done very little to find new ways to speak to the world and interact with the world.

To my way of thinking, there is a paradox in what has happened in respect to Brethren contact and interaction with the wider world. The more easy it is to communicate with the rest of the world, the less we Brethren do it as a church. The language in the reorganization of the Church of the Brethren in recent years is perhaps symptomatic in that it seems to submerge what I believe is the core essence of being Brethren.

Ask anyone how Brethren respond to the rest of the world, and Disaster Relief would most likely be one of their first three answers, if not the first. I tried once again to decipher what the Brethren organizational chart and funding choices really say about Brethren views of and relation to the rest of the world. Here are the terms I found - Disaster Relief Fund, Emergency Response/Service Ministries, Faith Expeditions, Global Mission Partnerships, Global Food Crisis Fund, Global Women s Project.

Though people in disaster need relief, emergencies must be responded to, and there is a food crisis in the homes of many families around the world, I fear for what happens to Brethren and our view of ourselves and of the world when we consider the rest of the world in our time and commitment of financial resources mainly in terms of crisis and disaster. A half century ago the terms Brethren Service and Foreign Missions for many Brethren framed their view of the world. Language changed to a more inclusive World Ministries in which the arrows of giving and receiving might not all point in one direction.

I must admit that I find hopeful signs in the current titles Global Women s Project and Global Mission Partnerships and Faith Expeditions. The latter admits we must interact with others in order to learn about them. In describing its mission, Global Mission Partnerships says it extends Brethren presence and witness into other cultures and nations through multifaceted ministries of theological education, church planting, health, and development. Even the Global Food Crisis fund does more than provide food relief, it also supports overseas development assistance.

A word about development. As used here, it is not about fundraising, or constructing new houses. For communities, development is a socioeconomic term analogous to education of the individual. Educare, the Latin root of the word education, means to draw out. To develop means to unwrap, undo the enveloping layers that bind people in poverty and servitude and blind following of tradition. The transformation of a community in development can be as dramatic as that of a tulip bulb transformed into a colorful flower in the spring.

In a sense, disaster relief is about shipping bouquets of tulips. What would happen if we, so to speak, shipped less cut tulips, and sent more tulip bulbs with instructions how to propagate them. Then there would be more people to grow tulips, and more places to grow them.

There is a philosophy abroad which colors our view of the world. It is the idea of limited good. When I first comprehended that I had been programed with this language, and then realized the practical and theological meaning for its opposite, it was one of those AHA moments. The idea of limited good goes something like this: Good is finite; there is a limited amount of material good, love, and friendship. If your situation gets better, then mine may get worse, so I better get mine first. Real progress comes only at the expense of others. The situation of the Palestinians and Israelis is a caricature of two parties believing in this view.

The converse logic is that: Both God and good are infinite. The whole may be greater than the sum of the parts. If my situation improves, it may in fact have benefits for you, and vice versa. Value can be created.

Dan West s Heifer Project denied and challenged any hint of limited good. Heifer Project always was as much about development as it was about resolving an immediate need. Both the families that received a gift of livestock, and communities they lived in were more self sufficient because of Heifer International s action. Passing on the gift of the first female is a remarkable concept that grab peoples hearts wherever it happens, and continues pushing beyond any limitations. Heifer International has learned from its past and keeps on teaching.

I trust that in our sister relation with the church in San Juan de la Maguana we will never need to respond to a disaster, emergency or food crisis there. Perhaps there are ways that we can learn of, and share in, their vision to have well-being - Shalom; to be complete - body, mind and spirit, in a community and nation where there is respect and refutation of those who would limit good.

In a dramatically changing world, Brethren responses also need to change. Some of this has happened and is happening. Today I would challenge the congregation and each of you personally to consider giving more to those activities and agencies that have that vision of Isaiah in their plans. The Global Women s Project s rings in harmony with Isaiah when it declares its primary target is the global poverty, oppression, and injustice which women suffer, and our own over consumption and misuse of resources which directly contribute to their suffering.

When we share our food with the hungry and provide the poor wanderer with shelter, as Isaiah says, we loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke. If we have material possessions and share them with a brother in need, as John reminds us, do we not share a holy moment, and demonstrate that the love of God is in us and among us?

return to "Messages" page

return to Long Green Valley Church page