The readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter are:
First Reading Acts 9:36–43
Psalm Psalm 23
New Testament Revelation 7:9–17
Gospel John 10:22–30
Our psalm and Gospel readings focus on shepherding. Revelation on Christ the Lamb, whose self sacrifice gives him dominion and the power to gather countless people from every ethnicity into eternal life.
Being a shepherd who is presently in the thick of lambing, I choose to focus on John 10.
The entire Gospel of John is a drama of the ancient sort, with a prologue, oodles of irony, and several recognition scenes. This day’s Gospel is just such a “recognition.” During the Jewish feast of Tabernacles, the Jews pressed Jesus, “Who are you? Are you greater than our father, Abraham, and the prophets? Who do you claim to be? (8:25, 53)” Here again, at the feast of Hanukah, they ask questions that may also be on our minds: ““How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
The phrase translated as “keep us in suspense” is actually seldom used in Greek literature with just that meaning. It reads literally, “take away our life.” It could mean, “Don’t keep annoying us,” or it could be another piece of irony: “You may be bringing life to some, but you are bringing death to us who reject you.”
Jesus replies, “I keep disclosing who I am, but you do not believe because you do not belong to my flock. My sheep hear my voice. I know them. They follow me. I give them eternal life.”
Life here on Heatherhope Farm, during lambing, is a living drama that illuminates and amplifies this exchange. And it is all about recognition of care.
The mother ewe lies on her side. She raises her head and curls her lips, and she groans in labor pains. After her travail of minutes or even hours, the lamb spills out in a sack of the waters and blood of life. The mother turns and hurriedly smells to see if this is indeed her lamb. Then she licks the sack from the lambs nose and mouth and body and carries on to clean and dry the lamb with her licking, chortling all the while.
Here is the first act of the drama of recognition. Mother knows lamb by the fragrance the two of them share. But lamb already is familiar with mother’s voice from her days inside the womb. Then, within minutes, the lamb shakes its head and begins to bleat, and mother learns that unique sound. Lamb finds the teat. Mother nourishes. From now on, all the days mother and lamb live together they will be bonded by the call and response of their voices. Mother cares, and lamb knows it through mother’s voice.
If Connie or I have picked up on the telltale signs of labor, and have been watching, we put on our OB gloves to keep our scent off the lamb, and simply pull off any umbilical sack that the ewe may have missed, to ensure the first, crucial inhalation of life. We will carry the lamb to the safety of the lambing pen and dip its umbilical cord in iodine to prevent infection. We pinch and strip the mother’s teats to make sure her flow of milk is adequate. But that’s all. Then we leave mom and lamb to do what they do best—to deepen their trust in each other. Within a very short time mother and lamb can be mixed in a large flock, or loosed on a large pasture, and they will call out and respond, find one another, certify by sniffing, and the caring goes on.
Still, each birth is unique. And there are those times when something interferes with the bonding and the work of nurturing. That is when the shepherd must go into action. And wouldn’t you know it, the very last lamb born this year has had just such a challenge. Mother seems attentive enough, but perhaps her flow of milk has been substandard. And the ewe lamb may have had birth trauma that has hampered its nursing instinct, or it may have become discouraged. But #309 is a tiny, weak lamb, who has been languishing. Connie and I tube fed the lamb by having it swallow one end of a long tube into its stomach and then using a large syringe to feed warm lamb milk replacer into it. We then tried it on a lamb nursing bottle, but she didn’t suck. Hours later another tubing and another try at the bottle. And repeat. Finally #309 started to nurse. A few ounces, then five, and now she is up to six ounces at a feeding—headed in the right direction. We don’t always have to intervene, but to save a lamb’s life, we must do our work.
And now, whenever Connie and I walk into the barn, #309 and her mother snap to attention. We greet them, “Hello mother. Hello little lambie.” Mother greets us at the gate and chortles. Weak little lamb wobbles to her feet and takes a few steps toward us. We are auxiliary care-takers—but they know the sound of our footsteps, and our voices. They know our smell. They know we care.
Before this lambing time mother ewe kept a nervous distance. We raise all our ewes that way so our Border Collies will not get confused when they gather sheep or drive them away.
Before we started tubing and giving a bottle to #309 she startled and squirmed when we tried to catch and handle her.
But now they know our voice. They know that we are humans who care.
The Gospel of John is full of people who wonder who this Jesus might be. These Jews in chapter 10 never do understand. But the Samaritan woman at the well has a conversation in which she recognizes Jesus might just be the Messiah. Mary Magdalene is another woman who, at the empty tomb, just needs to hear Jesus’ voice call, “Mary,” and she answers, “Rabbouni.” And Thomas, despite all his doubts about Jesus’ Resurrection, hears Jesus call him to belief, and he replies, “My Lord and my God!”
What do these women and Tomas hear that opens their eyes? Majesty? Divinity? Life beyond death? I’m sure all of these things and more. But certainly they also recognize genuine, deep, eternal compassion.
Of all the bizarre behaviors I have witnessed during this global pandemic, the what saddens me the most is that so many people have turned against our precious caregivers. Nurses, doctors, public health administrators, teachers, pastors, governors, shop keepers, hospitality workers, flight attendants and others—all have been attacked for trying to keep people safe, healthy, and alive. These are people who have chosen to dedicate their lives to caring, and they have been attacked for it.
The question is, do we belong to the flock. Will Jesus bring us life or take it away? Will we never understand who Jesus is, or will we recognize him as Messiah by his caring? And will we learn to thank God for the caring people in our lives, receive their help, and support them in every way we can?
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The one and only time I gave birth, well over 35 years ago, my little one did not take in my milk. The doctors told me that typically newborns over 9 lbs at birth can and have not desired to be fed immediately, or even a few days later. My flow of milk was also not so good. How wonderful to hear that the little lamb is doing well. Hope the lamb continues to grow and enjoy the bond and love with his or her caregivers.