Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus who is the Christ, Amen.

This morning’s sermon is going to be kind of random.  Maybe that news is greeted with an eye roll. Like, how is that different from any other week I’m preaching? Not an entirely unfair criticism, but I feel like today’s sermon is trying to pull together exceptionally disparate threads.  

So some guideposts: Mom.  Downward trends in friendships.  Chernobyl. Life as a sheep. Oh and oil.

There are precious few people who I call on for help. I don’t know exactly what that’s about. If we had time and a therapist’s couch, we could get into that, but many of you have brunch reservations and/or pancakes to eat, no judgement if you’re doing both. In fact, I applaud you. Well done.

But anyway, I call on my Mom when I’m desperate.  I call her when Beth is out of town for a few weeks for work, like she is right now, and I’m feeling stretched thin.  I call my Mom for help. She hops on a train or heads to the airport. She’ll be here next Saturday, not that I’m counting down the days.  

My mom rearranges her schedule to help me.  This is nothing new, of course. She’s been doing this for my entire life.  She was my first phone call in college. She was the person I called to pick me up whenever I found myself in trouble.  She’s been my confidant, my cheerleader. I owe her. Big time.

I lean on her.  Hard. Because I know that she loves me, without condition or qualification.  

The other night, I was with a group of friends and we were reflecting over a few beers on how there is a growing sense among us that we have very few deep and strong relationships.  We have a lot of acquaintances. I know a ton of people, by name and/or face. I know things about a lot of people. But I don’t have a deep connection with very many.

There was a recent survey done of 2,000 adults.  Among its findings was that the average American hasn’t made a new friend since 2014 and 81% of folks believe lasting relationships are hard to find.  

We are living at a time when we know, intellectually at least, how important it is to have a village to raise a child.  We know how important connections are. We know how powerful they can be for our well being: physically, emotionally and spiritually.  Yet our villages are getting smaller and smaller.

The survey reported that the average American has 3 best friends, 5 good friends, and 8 people they like but don’t spend 1 on 1 time with.

Not too long ago, I bought a t-shirt that says I like coffee and maybe 3 other people.  I live in a family of four. It’s a great t-shirt, but it betrays more than my predilection for introversion.  My village is small.

On Monday of this week, I was driving home from the gym and while listening to NPR, I happened to catch a review of new dramatic miniseries on HBO about the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl in the late 1980’s.  The show is on my list of things to watch but I haven’t gotten to it this week because, well, Game of Thrones. But during the review, they played a clip from the show that’s been haunting me all week long.

One of the chief investigators of the disaster says,  “What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.”

Then we no longer recognize the truth at all.  At the risk of being ironic, isn’t that the truth? Doesn’t that truthfully or accurately describe the world in which we find ourselves? Right now we live surrounded by so many partial truths, white lies, so much spin, so many alternative facts, that what is true is increasingly elusive.  It’s hard to know what is trustworthy and even more difficult to know who is trustworthy.

Today’s passage from the gospel of John contains what might be some familiar imagery for some.  The bible is filled with shepherd and sheep metaphors that seek to describe God’s relationship with God’s people.

It’s imagery that is less readily accessible for some of us who’ve spent zero time on a farm.  But here’s what struck me this year, and I don’t think you need to be a sheep aficionado to appreciate it.

The sheep hear the shepherd’s voice.  The sheep recognize the shepherd’s voice.  This might seem painfully obvious, but there is a powerful promise here.  The voice of the shepherd has the power to cut through everything else. It cuts through all the competing voices, all the voices that threaten and confuse and mislead the sheep.  The shepherd’s voice speaks words of hope, words of safety, security and the fullness of life. Jesus, the good shepherd, enters into our lives where mistrust and isolation rule and calls us beloved.  Hear the voice of the good shepherd, “You are God’s beloved. You are the people for whom God comes into this world. You are one for whom Jesus lays down his life.”

It’s you.  Can you believe that?  Will you trust that? You don’t need to live in fear.  You don’t need to live in isolation. Brothers and sisters, you are the children of God, you are the sheep of Christ’s pasture. Together we get to live marked by the cross, we get to be a people of hope not fear. We get to be a people of love not hate.

In just a few minutes, during the time of the service in which we share the Lord’s Supper on Communion Sundays, you will be invited forward to be marked with the sign of the cross with oil.  It’s a reminder that you have been anointed, set a part for special work in this world. When you hear that you are a beloved child of God, you are hearing the voice of the good shepherd. When you are marked with the sign of the cross, you are being commissioned – sent to be God’s presence in the world.

It’s not easy work.  There are many competing voices out there.  But you are sheep who hears the shepherd. You are a part of an incredible village of support called the body of Christ.  You are loved without condition, without qualification. You have been given life, full life, abundant life. May God give the the strength and courage to life it boldly, this day and always.  Amen.