steeples against an evening sky

by Ellen Sims
texts: Jeremiah 4:18-28; Luke 15:1-32

On third Sundays Open Table offers a contemplative service. We pray in varied ways and a brief reflection on one or more of our lections is shared in lieu of a sermon. Below is a directed prayer, the reflection, and a description of our prayer stations.

Let us pray for people who are lost because . . .

their families of origin put them on a difficult path

they were wrenched from their families at a national border or under other cruel circumstances

they have lost their moral compass

someone has given them bad directions

they have taken unethical shortcuts

they are experiencing dementia in old age or some other mental or physical incapacity

Maybe you are feeling lost. From whom or what?
Where is God in this experience of lostness?
Can you be still long enough to let God find you?
God, thank you for the human guideposts who point us toward wholeness, kindness, generosity, forbearance, courage, hope.

REFLECTION “A Prodigal People”
This reflection’s title, “a prodigal people,” seems to allude to Luke’s comforting story of the lost son welcomed home after he squandered his inheritance. But I want to begin with the terrifying Hebrew Bible text in which the prophet Jeremiah imagines an entire population bent on self-destruction: a prodigal people. “You’ve brought this on yourself,” Jeremiah hears God saying in a horrific vision of a land laid waste by war, where “disaster overtakes disaster” (v. 20), the earth becomes “waste and void,” and the heavens “had no light” (23). Many find in Jeremiah’s grim warning the echoes of the poetic Genesis 1 story of creation—but in reverse.

What we are doing now to the earth is creation in reverse, just as the devastating war prophesied by Jeremiah also must have looked like creation in reverse. We, millennia later, are the first generation of humans capable of creating planet-wide devastation, in effect undoing the creation story. We are creating a new story of the prodigal people who were given all the resources we needed, but we squandered them.

The father in Luke’s parable images a God with an infinite capacity to welcome us home. But does the biblical God ever reconstruct home? Perhaps in the Genesis story of the flood. However, with “fierce anger” Jeremiah sees an apocalyptic vision of “the fruitful land” becoming a desert.

Within both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, God is imagined in various ways—-as an angry punisher sometimes as well as an always forgiving parent who can make everything right in the end. And visionaries through the ages have announced both grim and hopeful futures for this world. Christian mystic Julian of Norwich was able to affirm, amidst the dark days of the Black Plague, the Crusades, and other horrors of the 14th century: “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” I’m no visionary who sees into the future and no scientist who is calculating the terrible impact of climate change. But I believe, even though terrible things will happen in this world/to this world, that love is what lasts, that life ultimately defies death, that “goodness is stronger than evil” (to quote St. Paul). The things of God will endure.

But our thoughtless prodigality is harmful. To live without considering the consequences of our consumption and short cuts must grieve and maybe, as Jeremiah suspected, anger God. Sometimes I wish I believed in the zapping God who could send a thunderbolt or a plague of locusts to stop captains of industries and political leaders who put their profits and power above the health of our planet. But I’d be zapped, too, for my own carelessness and extravagance.

Let God be the prodigal God who gives and forgives prodigiously, extravagantly, endlessly.

But let us not be the prodigal people who, with the negative sense of the word “prodigal,” squander our planetary inheritance and assume God will pull a fatted calf out of his magician’s hat after rainforests and icebergs and the descendants of Adam and Eve are gone from the earth. The God I encounter in Jesus will forgive even if we incinerate Creation. And of course we surely break God’s heart every day because of how we treat one another. But to squander a planet? It’s hard for me to imagine anything sadder than God bereft of this lovely planet.

We are facing challenging days. Some will look away from the things that are hard to see.

To defend God’s creation, we must act. But we also have to pray —- pray in deep ways. We have to strengthen our inner resources as we work to save our natural resources. Which is why we’re here today, I hope. At least it’s why I’m here. I was reminded this week of Carl Jung’s response when people, living in cataclysmic times, asked him, “Will we make it?” He replied, “If enough people will do their inner work.” I truly believe that cultivating our spiritual resources will save us. Dear friends, the world needs Jesus followers who will care for God’s good creation, for communities that are struggling, for people on the margins, for families in need. But God will not be able to use us fully if we are not doing the inner work of developing God’s peacefulness, sacrificing ego for the sake of love, and returning to the God who welcomes us prodigiously as beloved children.

May our spirits grow strong enough to delight the creator and care for creation.

Prayer Station 1
Reread Psalm 14 (on p. 2 of this worship bulletin) which describes a people living with what I call “functional atheism” by behaving as if there is no God. The psalmist suggests God cares more about how we behave than what we believe. Regardless of what doctrines they say they believe, functional atheists act as if there is no God. The evidence of their atheism is the way they devour God’s people and do not “call upon the Lord.” In this moment let us “call upon the Lord” with prayers that do not ask God to give us the things we want but instead with prayers that help us discern how we can make God visible through our actions. What is one action you can take this week to make the Source of Love a reality in your life and evident to others? Using the back of your song lyrics, draw a picture depicting a way you can enact this prayer.

Prayer Station 2
Find a partner who is interested in this prayer option. Separately, create a map that represents your spiritual journey–including at least one time when you took a detour and got “lost” for a brief or prolonged period in your life. Consider ways to visually represent this journey, including the lost period/s, on your map, but it’s fine to use words to label that period, too. Then sit or stand near your partner (move chairs if you wish) to quietly tell them about the time you felt “lost.” (We aren’t using “lost” to mean, as some do, that you were a reprobate going to hell.)

Prayer Station 3
At the Lord’s Table we prayerfully partake of an extravagant feast prepared by a parent who welcomes us home–over and over–from our wanderings. Although we have sometimes been prodigal (wasteful and irresponsible) with what we’ve been given, our prodigal parent (“extravagant” being another meaning of that word) welcomes us back to the Table with joy at our coming. Experience a homecoming in your heart as you return to the Table where Jesus–the food, the host, the guest–celebrates your return.

Prayer Station 4
When we have experienced the generosity of God, we are inspired to give generously for the sake of others. May you find joy as you give to and through this church for the building up of God’s Kin*dom of love.

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