Have you ever met a shepherd? Do you know anyone who is a shepherd? To my knowledge there were none in my acquaintance. Then distant memories began to emerge of a long ago holiday. Let me share them with you now.
It had been a long, hot, journey. As we arrived at our destination we were all looking forward to something to drink. Juice for the younger members of the party, tea for the others (or perhaps for the driver something cold in a pint glass!) This was our family’s first trip to my cousin Jim and his wife Enid’s farm in Suffolk.
The loaded car pulled into the open gates of White House Farm where we were met by Jim, who was looking slightly harassed. “Sorry we’re a bit behind with the tea, there’s a late arrival…come and see”. We followed him into the yard and there in a straw covered pen was a labouring ewe. Enid was on her knees about to help with the delivery. We all watched in amazement as the lamb arrived into this world. In her previous working life, Enid had been a District Nurse and Midwife. When she took early retirement, she returned to help Jim run what had been her family’s farm. Enid finished attending to the ewe and her lamb and then we all traipsed into the farmhouse for well -deserved refreshments. What a start to our holiday!
Enid had always wanted to raise a flock of pedigree sheep and this was her second year of lambing, which usually took place from mid January to early March in the big barn. The registered flock was of the breed, Texel, plus she kept a few old, native Suffolk sheep. The ‘Texels’ were all recorded in her book as were the new lambs Date of birth, sex, weight, number and name! Enid liked to name her lambs and as this was year 2 she was onto the 2nd letter of the alphabet. This late arrival was named Betty after my mother who was with us on this trip to see her much-loved nephew and his wife. Just as appropriate was the date of the lamb’s arrival as it was my mother’s birthday – 2nd April!
During the rest of that holiday and on many subsequent ones we all learned so much of what it meant to look after and care for sheep, in fact our daughter gained her Girl Guide Farmer’s badge! On one memorable day on that first trip, we all helped in the weighing, drenching, vaccinating of 76 sheep. Enid first capturing them, my husband weighing the sheep, daughter recording the weight, Jim drenching the sheep, myself vaccinating – a slight change from my day job which included vaccinating humans. Our 6yr old son then daubed each sheep with giant red and blue crayons to indicate the drenching and vaccinating, oh… and granny made the ‘elevenses’.
Following that first trip in the spring, we were all back in the summer of that year. Every morning, Enid’s first job would be to check her sheep. She counted them, checked and made sure nothing was amiss, put out extra feed if needed and gave them fresh water. From time to time they would be moved to new pasture in another field.
Enid was showing me that years lambs which were all healthy and looking much larger. As soon as she entered the field they all ran towards her and followed her around. She pointed to a slightly smaller lamb saying “There’s Betty! She’s turning into a lovely little sheep.” Enid knew her sheep. She also invested heavily in her small flock. Texel sheep are large sheep, originating from the Netherlands, which makes them suitable for the flat, Suffolk countryside. Very cold in winter and very hot in summer. They cost a lot in monetary terms – buying the initial flock then subsequent feed costs and vets’ bills to name just a few of these costs. However they also cost a lot in terms of time and hard work. For Enid they were a labour of love.
Jesus refers to himself as ‘The Good Shepherd’ as we read in today’s reading. (John 10:1-18). He leads his sheep into a pen into which only his sheep gather. He leads by example. He goes ahead of his sheep and they follow him. He is trustworthy – the sheep follow him because they know his voice and trust him because of the consistent care they’ve had from him. He provides good pasture.
One of the most well-known and loved Psalms is Psalm 23 in which a sheep says of the shepherd,
“ I shall not be in want
He makes me lie down in green pastures
He leads me beside quiet waters
He restores my soul…”
‘The Good Shepherd’ invests in his sheep. He has a stake in the well being of the sheep. He sticks with them through thick and thin. NB in our reading, the hired hand doesn’t. ‘The Good Shepherd relates to his sheep – “I know my sheep and my sheep know me.”
In verse 16 of John ch10 we’re told that Jesus was visionary. He moved to increase the size of his flock.
Matthew in his gospel ch9: 36 tells us, “when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.”
What then are the qualities that make Jesus ‘The Good Shepherd’?
He is good. He alone is good in the sense that he is without sin, blameless. As we heard in a previous reflection Jesus is both human and divine.
He guides as we heard in Psalm 23.
He nurtures. In the Old Testament, Isaiah prophesies, “He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather his lambs in his arms…” Ch 40:11
He lays down his life as we heard in today’s reading.
This reflection started with the questions. Have you ever met a shepherd? Do you know a shepherd?
To Enid I give thanks that she taught our family what it was to be a shepherd because that is what she was. No little Bo Peep neglecting her sheep! I recently met a man here in St Cuthbert’s who was in the church to hear his wife singing in a concert. He mentioned that it was great to have his first night off in weeks. He was a farmer from the borders who had just completed lambing. He had a flock of 800 – yes, 800 ‘Texels’! Another shepherd!
Jesus is our ‘Good Shepherd’. We are still full of the joy of Easter when Jesus, after giving his perfect life for us by dying on the cross, was raised from the dead in order that we would be given forgiveness for our sins and life eternal. What does our ‘Good Shepherd’
require of us? His disciple Peter had denied His Lord and Shepherd three times prior to Jesus’s death.
Following the resurrection, Jesus appears to Peter and confronts him regarding his denial. Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me…” which Peter confesses he does and Jesus restores Peter by commissioning him to “Take care of my sheep.” This empowered Peter to turn his life around and to become a leader at Pentecost. In 1Peter 5:v1 – 4, Peter himself, exhorts his fellow Christians to “tend the flock”. An invitation for us, perhaps, to become shepherds?