Burning Man, 2019
Tuesday, August 26, 2019
The Rev. Amelie A. Wilmer
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, `Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:1, 7-14)
Today’s gospel reading got me thinking about manners, and I came across an article about Bernard Baruch. He was a twentieth century American financier, philanthropist and statesman who offered economic advice to presidents such as Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
But the reason he got my attention is that he was also a fairly well-known dinner host. On one occasion he was asked by a New York society columnist how he handled the seating arrangements for all those who attended his dinner parties. His response was “I never bother about that. Those who matter don’t mind, and those who mind don’t matter.”
In today’s Gospel reading from Luke, we are given some instruction by Jesus about how to behave when we are invited to a fancy dinner. Jesus tells us not to grab the seats reserved for the most privileged guests. That would lead to embarrassment. If we overreach, the host may come with a more important guest and tell us to get up and take our seat at the “nobody” table. We wouldn’t want that…it would be embarrassing for us and for the host; it would be impolite to presume that we are highly honored guests. It seems that Jesus is giving us a lesson in manners!
But when Jesus talks about being cautious not to grab the best seats at the banquet, is he simply telling us to be polite? I doubt it. Jesus was a radical who shook up his world, perhaps more than any other individual in history. I don’t think he was talking much about being polite. I think he saying to us that we do not want to be those people who mind where we are placed at the great table, that instead we want to be the people who matter.
What does it mean to matter? To matter to God? To matter at God’s great banquet table? What would it mean for each of us to truly claim the grace and love of God for ourselves? To claim it to the extent that we don’t worry about humbling ourselves, that we honestly don’t care where we take our seats?
Jesus says in today’s gospel, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” I want to share with you another translation, from “The Message,” a great contemporary version of the Bible. Here’s how Jesus puts it: “What I’m saying is, if you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face. But if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”
I like that a lot. If you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself. To matter at God’s table is to become who God created us to be, ourselves, fully human, recognizing God’s profound love for all of creation, and living into the knowledge that we are part of that creation. In order for us not to mind, we have to know that we matter.
And we do, we matter to God more than we can imagine, and through our own, unique humanity. All of us do, everyone matters; this is why in the very next sentence we are told who to invite to our own banquet: the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. We invite them because they matter in the fullness of their humanity as well. Authentic acceptance of who we are as God’s creatures allows us to begin to love others as they are, and trust that there is no better way to honor God and be honored at God’s table.
One of my favorite writers, Barbara Brown Taylor, once said something in an interview that has stuck with me. She was asked to comment on a statement she had made, that the call to serve God is first and foremost a call to be fully human. What did she mean by being “fully human?” Her response was: “At the very least it would mean something about every day, to the best of my ability, resisting being a fake. Resisting the fake answer, the false front, the superficial conversation in favor of something more deeply human, more deeply connected to what really matters about being alive, whether it sounds religious or spiritual or correct or not. It means worrying less about being perfect and being concerned more with being authentic or real with other people.”
Which brings me to where we are right now, at Burning Man where we gather to form a community based on the principles of Radical Self-expression, self-reliance, inclusion; communal effort, and a gift economy. Each of these principles balance one another out to foster an environment where being one’s authentic self is essential to the genuine connectedness of the community.
The other thing about Burning Man is its location – here in the middle of an alkaline desert “Playa”, which is a true “humbling” experience – everyone has to deal with the same hot temperatures, the same shortage of water, the same dust that gets into everything.
When you first arrive here, as you all know, there are greeters who provide a true human welcome, usually including a hug, and that unique way of helping new, “Virgin” Burners become connected, “one” with the Playa, immediately. Here’s how one greeter described it:
“I remember one night when I was doing a shift and a fellow came roaring in driving a spotless sports car and wearing a white suit. When we told him he’d have to get down on the desert floor and make a “dust Angel,” he looked mortified. But after he’d added a layer of dust to his immaculate clothes, he seemed to feel much better and far more relaxed. He was now ready to park his fully automatic vehicle and go into manual mode for his week at Burning Man.”
When we’re more concerned about being connected to what really matters, more concerned with being authentic or real with other people, we don’t mind much what we’re driving, what we are wearing, the location of our seats in relation to the “important” people – [any of those status symbols our society and culture tell us are important.] We become more concerned instead with truly loving ourselves, loving each other, and God.
And yes, it is good to be polite. As an Episcopalian who lives in the south, I have seen a lot of polite. But my hope is that our decency and respect for ourselves and each other comes from an authentic place within us, and that in being ourselves this week…the best version of ourselves, our actions our words and pure presence can create a world of wonder in which it is very easy to fall in love – with God, with this beautiful earth, with one another and with ourselves. That is what really matters.