Sheep With a Shepherd

A Sermon on Psalm 23 and Mark 6

“We are poor little lambs who have lost our way. . .” Years before Rudy Vallee made that little ditty a hit in 1927; before Bing Crosby had his way with it twenty years later. . .the Whiffenpoofs of Yale University, the first a cappella singing group, made that song their theme. Actually, their drinking song. “Sing the Whiffenpoofs assembled / with their glasses raised on high / and the magic of their singing casts its spell. . .”

We are poor little lambs who have lost our way. Does this lyric still make sense a hundred years later? Can these words help us make sense of a senseless world? A world in which so many people are just one disaster away from hunger, homelessness, hopelessness? A world which seems relentlessly violent? This weekend's tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, proves what we know all too well: we have, indeed, lost our way.

What about this lyric: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. . .”? Do these words still help us make sense of a senseless world? On this day, when we will baptize five children into a church, a community of faith that tries to help us make sense of our sinful, broken world, what do these images – of sheep and shepherd, of lambs and the lamb of God – have to say to us? What is God saying to us through the words of the 23rd Psalm? Those are such familiar words, calling to mind fragrant flowers and fresh dirt, quiet sounds of grief, soft embraces from those who come, looking for comfort. What is God saying to us in the words of the sixth chapter of Mark, our Gospel text? These are words lifted from between two miracle stories – first, when Jesus feeds the 5,000 and then, when Jesus calms a storm. What do these words from today's Gospel mean to us: “He had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. . .”?

Are we poor little lambs? Are we like sheep? The precious children being presented by their beloved parents and godparents today, those baby Christians-to-be are, clearly, little lambs, baby sheep, who need a shepherd. (Actually, they need two or three.) But what about us? Are we also little lambs, sheep in search of a shepherd?

Some of you may be saying to yourselves, I feel more like a shepherd than a sheep. Some of us parents, godparents or grandparents, some of us adult children, some of us sisters or brothers – those of us who care for anyone else, in any kind of intentional way, we may be wondering: Just when do WE get to be a sheep? Who will care for US?

Jesus had compassion on the people of his time who recognized him and rushed toward him and begged him to help them and heal them. Jesus was the Good Shepherd, restoring and comforting. And no matter who we are, Jesus wants to care for us, today, just as he cared for his friends, back then. Whether we feel like shepherd. Or sheep.

The problem with that song the Whiffenpoofs began singing a century ago, the problem with us today is this: sometimes, people think they are not worthy of God's love. When I did some internet research, I found that the “bridge” of that old song had these words: Gentlemen songsters off on a spree / damned from here to eternity / God have mercy on such as we: Baa, baa, baa. Actually, those lyrics are taken from a Rudyard Kipling wartime poem about enlisted men, who could have been officers but chose to serve as common soldiers. Here are some of Kipling's poetic words: “. . .the horror of our fall is written plain. . .do you wonder that we drug ourselves from pain?” Warlike moments, whether on a battlefield or in a movie theater, create fear that is no small matter, pain we may try to medicate. And we begin to wonder, in those helpless, hopeless moments: Is there really a God? Does God really love us? Are we worthy of God's love? Or are we just damned if we do and damned if we don't?

Remember these words: “He had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. . .” Jesus lived and breathed compassion. And he taught his disciples, his friends who kept on following him, he showed them how they were blessed from here to eternity. So were Jesus' so-called enemies: blessed. Blessed, if they could just stop what they were doing and see how God's compassion flowed through the Good Shepherd, into them. And so it is for us, for our friends, for our enemies. No matter how great our pain or suffering is. No matter how strong our fear or anxiety. No matter how many bad shepherds, destroying and scattering sheep, there may be out there (Jeremiah 23:1).

There is a Good Shepherd, who shows us, sheep and shepherds alike, that we are blessed, that we are forgiven, that we are loved. Those five little lambs about to be baptized are living reminders of how we can receive God's love and God's compassion, in Jesus Christ.

So, let us be reminded of the Good Shepherd's love and compassion. . .with a song! I call it “The Sheep WITH a Shepherd” song.

I'm a child of God who will go astray;
Help me, God!
I'm a good little lamb, and I've found my way:
Thank you, God!
Sisters and brothers in Christ are we,
Blessed from here to eternity!
God, have mercy on lambs like me;
Thank you, God!
I have a Good Shepherd who cares for me;
Thank you, God!
His name is Jesus, and he loves me:
Thank you, God!
Sisters and brothers in Christ are we,
Blessed from here to eternity!
God, have mercy on sheep like me;
Thank you, God!

—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
July 22, 2012