December 4, 2016

Church of Peace, UCC

Psalm 104:1, 14-30

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield


Something in the Giving

(second in the series “Animals of the Nativity”)


Today we’re continuing our Advent series called Animals of the Nativity, and this is the day we remember the cow. One of the most extraordinary cow stories I’ve ever heard was shared in church last January. Years ago, our Pastor Emeritus, Rev. Ken Kuenning, volunteered to serve as a cowboy for the Heifer Project, but these cowboys were not driving herds of cattle across the lush and dusty plains. They were on a ship! On the sea! Rev. Kuenning and a few others were assigned to accompany thirty-nine pregnant heifers who were on their way to refugees from East Germany.


Several cows gave birth along the way and required milking. This meant the cowboys would have to go down into the hold to get to the cows. Rev. Kuenning remembers how the boat would rock and huge waves would shake the ship, so there was a rope for the cowboys to hold onto when they climbed down. Pregnant cows on a ship, on the raging waters, but don’t worry, there’s a rope to hold onto…


Can you even imagine what that was like for those cowboys? (Just what exactly did we sign up for?!) Can you imagine what it was like for the cows…


Now this organization, The Heifer Project, has since become Heifer International, and we support Heifer through the pig offering the children collect in the spring. Heifer was founded nearly seventy years ago by Dan West. He was a farmer from the midwest who went to serve as an aid worker in the Spanish Civil War. The refugees were given a cup of milk each day, and it was not enough. He asked, what if there were a way to give a cow instead of just a cup of milk? And that was the question that gave birth to The Heifer Project.[1]


These days Heifer International sends animals to families all over the world —llamas and goats, chickens, and bees, and more. One of its defining practices is called Passing on the Gift, which means that once your family’s animal gives birth, you’ll pass along one of the offspring to another family, so a whole community can flourish, so the giving keeps going…


In this way, giving the gift of a cow is more than giving a cow. Heifer teaches that cows provide families with the Seven M’s: milk, meat, material (like leather), muscle (for hauling things), manure (which can be used as fuel), money, and motivation to stick with it. I would add an Eighth M: more cows.


With this focus on sustainability, Heifer acknowledges the truth: Hunger is not a short term problem. But I’ll tell you, I have trouble getting my mind around this. Given the resources of our planet, given our technological advancements —all that we have achieved as a human species— why have we still not solved the problem of hunger? I just want to figure it out and fix it!


Nearly eight hundred years before the birth of Christ, the prophet Amos had this to say to the Real Housewives of Samaria: “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan… you who oppress the poor and crush the needy, who say to their husbands ‘Bring something to drink!’ The Lord God has sworn by his holiness: The time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks…” (Amos 4:1-2).


The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and these days people still struggle to find something to eat —in Syria, in Venezuela, in Rock Island… I just want to figure it out and fix it, as though the problem is we haven’t come up with the right plan to end hunger. Really, what if we need something more than the right plan?



Today the scripture we hear comes from Psalm One-O-Four, a song of praise for creation. Right away we hear praise for the order of the universe. See how creation fits together in harmony. Everything is made for a purpose. The springs gush through the valleys to give water to the animals. The fir trees are for the storks. The rocks give shelter to the hyraxes. God provides for those in need, and see how it all works out, and sing praise to God for this well-designed plan. [2]


It is good to notice this. It is good for our observation to turn into praise, but what happens when this praise turns into expectation? God I see how you provide grass for the cattle, bread to strengthen the human heart, wine to gladden the human heart. We praise you, O God, for the bread! So what happens when there isn’t any?


It is one thing to sit at a Thanksgiving table filled with food and tell the truth: Look, the LORD our God provides! It is another thing to talk to someone who is actually hungry. Look, God will provide! I hope? In the meantime, you need something to eat.


If only we could figure out this disconnect between what God is capable of doing and what actually happens. If only God would follow the plan and play by the rules. But that’s not how God’s generosity goes.


In the generosity of God, nobody has to pass a drug test in order to get free groceries. Nobody has to prove they’re working or looking for work, that they truly deserve this bread and this wine. God does not give to reward the righteous nor does God withhold giving to motivate the undeserving. God is not ashamed to give a hand up and a hand out.


Your ways are not our ways, O God. Your generosity would never pass an audit.


This a problem for us. If all we see is the orderliness of creation, this is a problem.


But the song isn’t over. See the Psalmist has been setting up a progression: first the lights of the heavens, next the foundations of the earth, then the mountains and trees, then the wild animals, then the domestic animals, then the people, then just when you’d think the Psalmist would begin praising God for our human families and homes, there is a turn right around verse sixteen. And whoosh! We’re back to the trees!


Friends, we’ve just veered off the path and we’re hurtling toward the wilderness —look over there are the wild goats, and hang on, there are the lions! Praise God for the velociraptors and the sea monsters! Praise God for the cowboys and for the cows giving birth on the ocean. “Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great!”


Just when it’s all too much, when the generosity is too confounding and unfair, when God’s love for the monsters makes you wonder who God really is, the song turns again! The singer gets a hush in his voice as though he’s saying, look over there: See the LORD our God kneeling down with her hand open; she is feeding a deer.


Because who would give their son a stone when he asks for bread?

Who would give their daughter a snake when she asks for an egg?


This is the generosity of God. There is something in the giving that crackles with affection and shimmers with pleasure. When you find out your best friend had a baby, this is what lets you go to her house and stick around after seeing that baby to scrub all the dishes in her sink. This is what lets you spend the day in the hospital sitting beside the one you love without even thinking about the time. It’s what lets grandparents move heaven and earth to be there for their grandchildren.


So maybe nobody has to pass a drug test to sit at our table. Nobody has to prove they are looking for a job in order to be welcome here. There is something in the giving of God that is more than our careful policies. There’s something more…


Psalm One-O-Four begins by praising God in the heavens and so on, then it whooshes to the strange creatures in the wilderness, then back to the tenderness of God. It ends with the Psalmist confessing his own impulse to give, and what he has to give is a song: “I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have my being” (Psalm 104:33). I mean, how could you not? There is something in the giving of God that awakens our song. There is something in the singing that keeps it going… All the generosity of God pouring through creation!

The vision of a day when no one goes hungry…



Heifer International celebrates how the cows give us the Seven M’s: milk, meat, material, muscle, manure, money, and motivation. I would add an Eighth M: more cows. We would not be wrong to add a Ninth M: music.


As it turns out, researchers in the United Kingdom have discovered cows have different kinds of moos used to communicate different messages. One kind of moo signals distress. Mama cows have distinct moos which they use to call their babies, and the calves sing back. I love this quote from James Bourne, a farmer from Lincolnshire, “A calf certainly knows its mother from other cows, and when a calf blarts the mother knows it’s her calf.”[3]


So maybe all those years ago in Bethlehem, there was a refugee couple who needed a place to spend the night. There could have been a cow who made some room for them in her home. She may have given them her manger, and her straw, then maybe this cow lowed to her baby calf. I’m pretty sure Mary understood what she was doing because when her baby was born, Mary gave him her song, so he would know the generosity of God. You know Jesus grew up learning to sing this song of praise for creation, and that was just the beginning…


May it be so. Amen.





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