Sermon for 2019 Opening Eucharist

Opening Eucharist
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.


What We Learned in 2019

Religious AF 2019 was wildly successful, exceeding our expectations. We had 70-80 people attend each of our four services at the Temple. The people who stopped by our daily Morning Prayer services, afternoon conversation time and contemplative services were eager to engage about their spiritual lives. Here are some initial thoughts on principles for Christian ministry to those outside the church.

Honor the culture you are in: We are Burners first! We love the ethos of Burning Man Amelie Eucharistand support its mission. We put up with the awful physical conditions because we find the Reign of God present in this temporary, wild and wacky community.  We are not venturing into this foreign culture in order to draw people out of it. Rather, for us, this place is home. Our existence as Burners gives us a common identity with other Burners. We as individuals as well as a camp have a deep respect to the ten principles. This respect allows for an immediate common understanding and in many ways adds credit to our camp’s mission.  One of the ways we honor our culture is through our liturgy that intentionally incorporates language and imagery found at Burning Man.

Serve, Don’t Sell: One of the ten principles of Burning Man is decommodification. There is an intentional effort to protect everything from the rampant commodification in the default world. At Burning Man, nothing is a commodity. There is no bartering. No quid-pro-quo. When you give a gift, you do so expecting to get nothing, to gain nothing. You can’t sell anything, not even Jesus or the Episcopal Church.

The principle of decommodification acts as a necessary guardrail in Christian ministry. When we serve people at Religious AF, we are there to welcome them, serve them, pray with them, and answer their questions. We are not there to show them how cool Jesus or the Episcopal Church are. We aren’t recruiting them, or asking them to join anything.

Be clear about identity and intentions: We are a Christain camp. We are clear about that in our camp principles and our services. We do not hide our Christian identity.

Hannah&Alex_Ash Wednesday

Be aware of triggering symbols: While we are an explicitly Christian camp, we are aware that certain aspects of Christian piety, iconography and theology have been used in harmful ways.  We are careful to limit Christian symbols and language, such as the Latin cross or atonement language that may pose a barrier to those wounded by the church.  Having the word “Fuck” in our name helps people feel like we may be different than Christians they have experienced in the past. Clearly, this wouldn’t work in every setting. The success of our name is dependent on its context within the culture of Burning Man.

Be non Judgmental: From our Purpose and Principles, “We offer hospitality, conversation, prayer and ritual to all who seek it: gay, trans, straight, high, sober, clothed, naked, polyamorous, monogamous, celibate, gracious and grumpy.” We have welcomed people in all of those categories, without flinching or wincing, because we believe all people are beloved children of God, deserving of love. This may be one of the most surprising aspects of our camp for outsiders. Christianity has been so closely identified as moral police that people are often pleasantly stunned by our acceptance of the freaky side of themselves that they may hide from others. Not only are we accepting of people who are “gay, trans, straight, high, sober . . .” we are those people. This can create an instant sense of belonging with fellow Burners.

Be a Caring, Safe Community: Group night shot

As a camp we intentionally work at being a caring community with clear boundaries and a process for handling conflict. We have a Community Covenant and honor everyone’s voice, in our camp as well as outside our camp. This sets a tone that is inviting to others. One way we create a safe space at the Burn is through our interactions with our one on one blessings. Before a blessing is given consent must be established. Consent is one of the strongest Burning Man values and by simply asking the individual receiving the blessing “Do I have your consent to place hands on you?” you are reinforcing a space of mutual understanding, love and trust.

Be Honest-Vulnerable-Authentic: We also have a mission to ourselves when attending Burning Man! This might sound similar to the ever quoted “self-care” message. However, it’s bigger than that. Burning Man is a place of healing.  Broken people – AKA people – attend Burning Man in the hope for some kind of healing, some kind of transformation. This is true for the members of our camp as well, both clergy and lay. We are all broken people seeking the healing love of God and this remarkable community. This perspective is particularly important when it comes to clergy, who are often viewed as the helpers, rather that those in need of helping. At Religious AF, we are all encouraged to be vulnerable to one another in our brokenness.

Each of our camp members are invited to bring their authentic selves with their own doubts and struggles into our conversations with others. Challenging ourselves to all go on this journey together means we as a camp need to make sure our own camp members have mental and physical health support. This support allows for campers to reflect on their own healing along with vowing to help heal our greater Burning Man community.


Do You Use Cannabis?

“Do you use cannabis?” This is a question I have never been asked.

Except at Burning Man.

Burning Man has a gift-giving economy – not bartering, rather, gifts freely given and freely received. You might be riding your bike, then turn a corner and be greeted by someone in the street asking: “Do you want an omelet?” ”May I give you a massage? Even: “Hungry for a strap-on corn dog?”

The question is always part of a loving exchange, a request for connection, or communion.

As I was tearing down my camp after Burning Man 2017 a tall, thin, young white man with long blonde hair came by and asked if he could borrow my rake. We rake our campsites to make sure we aren’t leaving behind MOOP (Matter Out of Place). The rake sifts through the dusty dust and reveals tiny pieces of trash. I had forgotten my rake so I couldn’t help him, but we ended up having one of those chance conversations that make Burning Man so special.

He asked, “How will you be different when you go back to the Default World? How has this Burn impacted you?” I was moved by the depth and sincerity of his questions, and after answering them, I offered him my gift, the Burning Man Blessing.

“May I bless you?” He said yes.

I placed my hands on his shoulders, looked in his eyes and said, “The world now is too dangerous, and too beautiful, for anything but love.” Then I blessed his eyes, ears, mouth, hands and feet – kissing his feet. I placed my hand firmly on his chest and said, “And may your heart be so opened, so set on fire that your love, YOUR LOVE, changes everything.” His eyes welled with tears.

We hugged. He sobbed.

Then he asked me The Question,

“Do you use cannabis?”

“No,” I replied.

“That’s cool,” he said, “I had a gift for you, but that’s cool.”

I was taught by one of my first mentors to never refuse a gift, “If you refuse a gift, you refuse the giver.” But there are some gifts I can’t accept.

We parted ways. I tore down more of my camp and then took a break to explore more of the Playa – the dry alkalai lakebed that houses Burning Man.

Hours later when I was back at camp the man returned. He was eager to see me. He pointed to the banner on my shade structure bearing the name of my camp, Religious as Fuck, and asked,

“Is that true, are you religious?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact I am, I am a Christian.”

A big smile crossed his face as he exclaimed, “Wow, you just restored my faith in religion!”

And then he went on his way.

This man was eager to ask his question. I could tell he was hoping the answer was going to be yes . So many people have had bad experiences with religion, but haven’t given up hope—they yearn for the church to look like Jesus: loving, welcoming and compassionate. All it took was acceptance and a blessing.

Sometimes it is that simple .

— Brian Baker
After the 2017 Burn

Carren Sheldon Post Burn Sermon

This is the desert box. We need a little piece of the desert in our room, because so many important and wonderful things happened to the People of God in the desert.
We need to know what it is like.

 The desert is a dangerous place. The sand is always moving, so it is hard to know where you are. There is little water in the desert, so you can get thirsty. Almost nothing grows, so there is almost nothing to eat. People can die if food and water are not found. The wind blows the sand, and hits your skin and stings. In the daytime, the hot sun scorches your skin, at night it is very cold. People wear many layers of clothing to protect themselves from stinging sand, the scorching sun, and the cold night. 

The desert is a dangerous place. People don’t go into the desert unless they have to.

I went to the desert last week.
It was SO hard.
I like to think I’m pretty tough. But this was a whole ‘nother order of difficult.
(I said that last night, and 30% of the congregation came up afterward to say they love the Black Rock Desert, including the white outs! Go figure.)

Together with 8 people I don’t know, most of us first-timers, I went on a mission to share the love of God in Christ with people who have no idea that’s in any way relevant, at a Burning Man theme camp called Religious AF.

Lots of people thought we were being ironic.
A few heckled as they rode by on bikes:
“Good luck with your sky wizard”
and “There is no God.”
(A campmate responded, “We love God.”)
Some people came into our living room and visited for a while,
before it dawned on them that we were serious.
“Wait?! You’re religious for real?!”
(How I felt finding out that some people love white outs.)

In this day and age, people think that “religious” means “intolerant”, “unkind”, “proselytizing”, “judging”.

One of the first people we met was Rabbit. His camp makes
pinhole cameras and develops the film,
old school: in a dark room.
Same way we do religion
old school: with sacraments, & the Bible.

Tho’ not one of us—who call ourselves Religious AF—
brought an actual Bible.
(We have bible apps which don’t work without cell signal.)

Rabbit said he was glad we were there,
though it was too bad we weren’t “allowed” to do things.
I think he meant dancing and drinking,

So many of our neighbors don’t know that Christians,
even old school Christians, do all the things.
If I’d had a Bible, I might have read today’s reading from
the Song of Solomon; or today’s Gospel:
nothing outside us defiles us, only what’s in our hearts.

Incarnate passion, Celebration! Art! Bread! Wine! Dancing:
All holy!
God has created us with love, for love.
How have we not shared that message?

Despite the dismay that people, nice, thinking people,
believe in God and Jesus,
more people came to our camp every day.
to pray, to ask questions, seeking sanctuary, and silence.
I think some came because something had scared them.
And we also went out to adventure among them!

We went into the desert with our ancient Christian traditions.
Jesus used common, every day metaphors
which ordinary people understood, but
we don’t have so many shepherds and oil lamps,
and so our ancient language and symbols have become
a kind of secret code separating us and them,
instead of uniting us as one in God’s love.

I guess that wouldn’t matter if the people weren’t seeking God –
but they ARE – they just don’t have language for it.

People often speak of Burning Man as a place of hedonism:
but it’s too hard for hedonists.
The Four Seasons is for hedonists, not the Nevada desert.

Burning Man is more a place of abandon:
abandonment of old assumptions and identities, for
for celebrating impermanence, Creation, and creativity.
For 2-thousand years, Christians have gone to the desert
to be tested and refined.

All the Abrahamic traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam,
are grounded in the same stories of a people, our people,
finding God as they faced hardship in the desert.

Burning Man is difficult by design.
At the entrance gate: they make you lie down in the dust.
Dust gets into everything
What does our tradition say about dust?
We blessed ashes, and offered them with Ash Wednesday words:
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return”
words as meaningful in the desert as they are here.
Maybe more.

70-thousand people live cheek by jowl for nine days a year:
with no cell service, no wi-fi,
nothing bought or sold but coffee and ice.
Everything else a gift.

They create community, and amazing works of art –
and then they give it all up,
leaving no trace,
holding the transformation written on their hearts.

That seems very Christian to me.
Resurrection is not about dying and getting our old lives back.
None of Jesus’ closest friends recognized the Risen Christ.
Resurrection is about the powerlessness of death to
overcome God’s Creation:
about God’s call for us not to cling to things of this world –
but to let it go, and accept the gift of new life in Christ.

How can we, as Christians, abandon the things of this world,
and transform our ancient traditions in ways that seekers comprehend –
and to be transformed by seekers showing us
new meaning in God’s teaching?

What do sin and salvation really mean? For us. Here. Now.
I’ve been translating these things in my mind for years,
but it’s hard to articulate them for people who aren’t
fluent in religious language!
Godly Play is all about teaching the art of religious language:
Gestures, movements, liturgical actions, words, silence.
These languages connect us with companions grappling
with the existential questions every human being must face:
Who am I? Where did I come from? Am I alone?
What am I supposed to do?  What is death?

Some people use the language of pilgrimage –
old school to Rome, the Camino, Sinai, or Mecca,
new school at Burning Man:
the journey is a great blessing.

For four years, Brian Baker has been giving a blessing
as his gift at Burning Man.
I have seen the people who scoff at religion begin to cry: as he puts his hands on their shoulders, looks in their eyes and says:

The world NOW is too dangerous and too beautiful
 for anything but LOVE.
I bless your eyes that you may see God in everyone you meet,
your ears that you may always hear the cries of the poor,
your lips that you may speak nothing but the truth with love,
your hands that everything you give and receive will be a sacrament.
and your feet that may run to those who need you,
your heart, that it may be so opened, so set on fire that your love, YOUR LOVE changes…everything.

Purpose and Principles

Religious AF offers, open, non-judgmental, non-commodified Christian spiritual hospitality, prayer and conversation to all burners. We are a place of spiritual healing and safety.


We are explicitly Christian. Our rituals, scripture, and prayer come from the Christian tradition.

We respect the value and validity of other spiritual paths.

We offer hospitality, conversation, prayer and ritual to all who seek it: gay, trans, straight, high, sober, clothed, naked, polyamorous, monogamous, celibate, gracious and grumpy.

Decommodification: we are not at Burning Man to sell Christianity, Jesus, the Church, or our camp. We are here to freely offer blessing, prayer, ritual and hospitality.

We are sensitive to the ways toxic Christianity has harmed people. We are careful in using triggering symbols, such as the Latin cross, or a predominance of male-centric language for God and humans.

We come to Burning Man because we experience God here. The generosity, openness, mutual support, creativity and playfulness is, in many ways, how we envision God’s dream for all of humanity.