I heard the former Rector of Emmanuel Church, Rapid City, share this in a sermon years ago. It showed up in an e-newsletter this week and I share it with you this Good Friday.
The Lamb Story
By Bishop David Anderson
Most of us have trouble remembering what we were doing on a particular day even months ago, but now 34 years later, a particular Sunday afternoon in March, 1972 still stands out in my memory. March of that year found me completing my first year as rector of St. Mary's Church in Malta, Montana. Actually I was rector of two other churches as well: St. Matthew's, Glasgow and All Saints', Scobey. That happened because the then-bishop of Montana, Jackson Gilliam, had convinced a very young priest in the Diocese of Washington, D.C., that if being rector of one church was good, being rector of three was three times better. And so I found myself starting my second year of residence on the Great Plains but still with much of the mindset of an east coast, urban dweller. Culture shock was going from the nation's capital to a lovely small ranching town of 2000 souls under the big sky of Montana.
A parish member, Harold, was always looking for ways to build a better understanding of the country and people into this new young priest. On a particular Sunday in March, he wanted to drive me to a sheep ranch south of Malta to show me what a ranch looked like during lambing season. We drove the 30 some miles under a stormy March sky and arrived at a large ranch where a Basque family cared for sheep in the tens of thousands. Harold had called ahead, told the family that he was bringing his priest down, and asked them to show us their lambing operation. As we got out of Harold's pickup, someone in an old, warm-looking coat came over to greet and welcome us. Spread out over several acres were four or five steel warehouse buildings; each seemed to hold several thousand sheep. Our guide explained that the sheep outside were watched closely during the lambing time, and when the ewes were about ready to birth their lambs, they were brought into the shelter of one of these large sheds.
As we walked toward the door of one of the buildings, I saw something that I was not prepared to see, and for which I had no frame of reference to deal with. City raised, I had heard, and now I could see that ranch life was hard. I could tell that economy and bottom-line financial viability preceded sentiment when it came to livestock. As we came to the door, we passed by a large heap of dead lambs, at least 50, perhaps a hundred. And all were missing their fleece! The pile of small lambs was 10 or 12 feet across and four feet high, and their poor little blood- stained bodies were already hard in the chill Montana March air.
Of course lambs die; I knew that! Sheep seem to die too easily, more easily than other livestock. It would be expected that some would die in birth or from disease, all cooped up as they were in large numbers in these sheds. But was bottom-line profit so important that they needed to skin the poor little things to make an extra dollar on such a small fleece? My urban mind raced ahead, already passing judgment on such practice. I was upset, offended and feeling argumentative over this.
As we went into the relative warmth of the building I turned and asked, "What was that pile of dead lambs all about?" The guide kept talking as he walked us to a pen: "Lots of these ewes give birth to twins, and for some reason known only to God, they will reject one and keep the other. Nothing we can do will change their mind. If we were a small farm, we might bottle feed the rejected lambs, or one of the kids might take a 'bum' lamb as a 4H project and raise it. That won't work here, we've got hundreds of 'bum' lambs, and we can't afford to lose all of them, just because their mama doesn't want them."
Passing an enclosure with just such a ewe, one lamb beside her and another penned in a corner, we came next to a solitary ewe. "This one lost her lamb after it was born. It's one of those in that pile you asked about. Sometimes they just die. So we have a ewe without a lamb in one pen and a rejected lamb in the next, but a ewe will only nurse its own; it won't accept another ewe's lamb. That's why the dead lambs are missing their fleece," he said. "When one dies we take the fleece off, cut leg holes in the fleece, and put it on a rejected lamb. We take some of the blood from the dead lamb and rub it on the forehead of the abandoned lamb, and then take it to the ewe who lost her lamb."
"She smells the fleece and recognizes the fleece as her own," he continued. "She sees the blood on the lamb's head and licks it off, and she can taste the scent of her own body in the blood of her lamb. She cleans the new lamb and claims it as her own and lets it suckle. In a day or two, her milk passes through the body of the new lamb, giving it the scent and taste of the mother, and the adoption is complete."
I left the ranch overwhelmed by the experience of death and life and the sheer number of sheep being cared for. And even with the good of the adoptions, I felt sorrow for the abandoned lambs and all the death. It made my calling as shepherd of three small Montana congregations look so much more manageable, so much more enjoyable.
It was some years later, during the Easter Season, that I saw our story in the lambs. It was an image of Christ as the knowledgeable shepherd, and Christ as the dying lamb, offering his fleece. And God the Father, as a mother sheep who looks at you and me, wrapped in the fleece of Jesus Christ, and with the blood of the lamb covering the stain of our estrangement from God. When God the Father looks upon you and me, it is the wrapping of Jesus that He sees, (as St. Paul said, "put ye on Christ Jesus"), and the blood, the salty taste of the blood, is the same blood shed on Calvary. And God sees his own, and claims his own, and we become his own, by adoption and grace.