Today’s lectionary readings describe the joy of being in relationship with the Creator. “Make a joyful noise, all the earth,” proclaims the Psalmist. Joy is not accidental but comes from recognizing that we are God’s beloved children, the sheep of God’s pasture, and, in response, serving God with gladness. We are not self-made, or independent, but belong to the One who created the heavens and earth. We live in an interdependent universe in which God’s care always surrounds us.
The Psalmist recognizes the life-transforming power of thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is the virtue of relationship and interdependence. In gratitude, we realize that the gifts of life come from countless others whose love has nurtured, inspired, and guided us. We give thanks by committing ourselves to God’s mission in our world. An insightful pastor might use the Psalm as an interactive litany in which congregants have an opportunity to quietly meditate on those things for which they are thankful and then share either verbally, or through drawing or movement, the objects of their thanksgiving,
Ezekiel also describes God as a shepherd whose love embraces most particularly the lean and oppressed among the flock. God will gather them up, restore them to health, and liberate them from all persecution. Ezekiel’s shepherd has a “preferential option for the lean and ravaged.” The fat and aggressive who have “butted,” intimidated and ravaged the weak and lean, will receive their just desserts.
Ezekiel’s words are particularly threatening to those who practice economic and relational oppression. They feast on green pastures now, but will eventually receive divine judgment.
While we cannot mete out punishment ourselves, or assume the nature of divine punishment from Ezekiel’s perspective, we imagine that the experience of the oppressors might mirror the “famine of hearing God’s word,” invoked in Amos 8:11. Their riches cannot save them from the divine absence they have created by turning their backs on the cries of the poor.
When we harden our hearts to the marginalized and impoverished, we turn away from God’s call to wholeness, empathy, and relationship. The further we are from our brothers and sisters, the more distant we are from God. The greater the empathy we have for those who are in pain and oppression, the greater companionship with have with the Empathetic God. This punishment, I believe, is not meted out by a vengeful God but part of the order of divine-human call and response. When we fail to respond to God’s call, we places barriers between God and ourselves that dull our perception of God’s presence and weaken God’s power in our lives.
Ironically, our protests against injustice, economic exploitation, and the unfair distribution of wealth is aimed at the well-being of the wealthy as well as the impoverished. When we awaken to our own, or enable others to see their own, injustice we become more attuned to God’s voice in our lives, and move from a famine of hearing God’s word to an abundance of divine inspiration.
The Ephesians text describes God’s presence in Christ empowering the faithful. In the spirit of Philippians 2:5-11, Christ rules by relationship and empowerment, rather than coercion and subjugation. Christ’s power is aimed at abundant life, filling all in all and giving everyone what they need to enjoy and share God’s abundant life. The spirit of wisdom and revelation enables us to embrace God’s energy and inspiration in our lives as the motivation to reach out to others. Ephesians calls us to “body prayer,” faithfully affirming, supporting, nurturing, and empowering our brothers and sisters within the body of Christ, whose presence ranges beyond the institutional church.
Matthew 25:31-46 also speaks of the faithful as God’s sheep. Here we see a division between sheep and goats, grounded in the interplay of action and perception. The sheep, honored by the Shepherd, respond to those around them with generosity and care, not thinking such actions are particularly special, but merely a reflection of their everyday commitment to healing relationships. It is unclear that the division of sheep and goats has anything to do with our explicit awareness of Christ or belonging to a particular faith tradition. Our relationship to God is grounded in our care for others, who are, in fact, God in God’s many disguises.
Listen prayerfully to the words of the Divine One: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.”
When we care for others, we are caring for God. What we do matters to God not only because it shapes the experiences of others, adding joy or sorrow to their lives, but also because our treatment of others shapes God’s own experience of the world. God is not only “the fellow sufferer who understands,” as Whitehead says, but God is also the loving companion who celebrates with us. The world truly matters to God: God’s love for the world is revealed through God’s empathy and experience of every cell and soul. Our lives are our gifts to God. Faith awakens the perception of God in all things, but also an ethical perspective that affirms that all things are in God, that is, embraced in God’s evolving experience of the world. The ethics of Matthew 25 are theocentric in scope: God is the ultimate recipient of value as well as the universal source of possibility and energy. With the Benedictines, we are to treat every guest, that is, everyone as Christ, for all persons are the sheep of God’s pasture and all actions bring joy or sorrow to God and God’s beloved.
The tie that binds today’s scriptures is not only the image of sheep and the shepherd, but also the intimacy of God who cares for all things empathetically, seeking their well-being and embracing all their experiences. A wise preacher might connect spiritual, ethics, and economics. He or she might choose to invite congregants to ponder the impact of their decisions and life-style on marginalized and impoverished people. He or she might also remind congregants to see Christ in all things, the source of all value and the recipient of all actions.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. He is available for lectures, workshops, and retreats.