The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19, Year C - September 11, 2016

The Rev. Amelie Wilmer Minor
Sermon Text: 

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 19, Year C

September 11, 2016

The Reverend Amelie Wilmer Minor


All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."

So he told them this parable: "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, `Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

"Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.' Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents." (Luke 15:1-10)





Well, I made it back from my adventure….and I’m still wearing my clerical collar!

For those of you who are wondering what I’m talking about, I spent the week before Labor Day in the Nevada Desert to attend Burning Man, a seven day festival where 70.000 people of all sorts and conditions come together and form a temporary “city” – they set up camps, make art and music, cook great food, drive mutant vehicles, dance around the clock, dress in costumes, [or nothing at all], give gifts, trade hugs, share stories, and pray.  The event is built on the principles of radical self-expression, radical inclusion, self-reliance, a gift economy (no money changes hands:  you can only by coffee and ice).  Communal effort, participation, immediacy, and a commitment to leave no trace on the environment are other principles.  Add to all of that the relentless dust - that gets in everything, blows when it will, and unites everyone in a bond of grey!

Of course, a lot of crazy things go on at Burning Man, and I’m sure some of you have read news articles about the nudity, drug use, and yes, the orgy dome.  It’s the kind of event that angers and frightens many civic and religious leaders…for a number of reasons, but most obviously because it is such a large scale movement and it threatens the status quo.  I have to say, not once did any of the “debauchery” get in my face, nor did it characterize the essence of the event, at all.  What I did encounter was open-hearted welcome and loving acceptance, genuine conversation, lots of humor, and some of the most clever creations I’ve ever seen.

As one reporter put it, “If Burning Man was just about wild parties, cool sculptures, impressive art cars, and amazing outfits, then it wouldn’t be that interesting to me. It’s also about building a city with a different set of norms, where giving is the currency, creativity the common bond, and openness the expectation.”[1]

On the Thursday morning of Burning Man, the 25 or so Episcopalians who attended collaborated to celebrate a Eucharist in the Temple that is erected each year for the event – a sacred space where people of all faith traditions and spiritualties gather to pray, meditate, lay their offerings, and worship in their own way.  It is where I placed the offerings that you entrusted to me before I left, all of which were set on fire as the Temple burned the last night of the festival.  Here is the stole that the all the clergy wore – lovingly made by a woman who suffers from a debilitating auto-immune disease….see the Burning Man symbol?  Oh, and here are my camp sunglasses.

As we prayed and sang in the Temple that morning, broke bread and offered the laying on of hands in healing, all kinds of people began to gravitate toward us and take part in the service.  There were tears, there was gratitude, there was healing, there was hope.  There was Jesus, in the bread, in the wine, in the hands, in the dusty feet -  the good shepherd, finding us all.

The lay preacher who delivered the homily said something that stayed with me.  She said, usually when we celebrate the Eucharist, the meal that Jesus shared with his friends, we are sitting in our air conditioned pews, using our clean linens, purifying our hands before we touch the bread.  But the world that Jesus lived in, the people he ate with, were far more like what we were experiencing right there in that dusty desert community filled with a ragtag cast of counter-cultural characters, non-conformists, and roust-abouts.

Which brings me to today’s gospel reading - that begins with Jesus being accused by the religious authorities of welcoming sinners and eating with them.  Jesus sought out and welcomed, celebrated, the kind of people who were ignored and despised, still are. The sexually suspicious. The religiously impure. Ethnic outsiders. Rich tax scammers and lazy poor people. Soldiers of the oppressing regime.  The chronically sick and the mentally deranged. Women with multiple marriages, widows and children. His closest disciples who betrayed him.

These People felt safe with Jesus. He exuded compassion.

The people who didn't feel safe with Jesus were the religious experts who appointed themselves as gatekeepers of God's love. When Jesus opened that gate for the unwelcomed, when he accepted the unacceptable without any preconditions, he angered the religious experts. Luke says in the beginning of today’s reading that that they "grumbled."

Whether then or now, there's a sad irony in how the simple act of accepting another person angers some people. But whereas the gatekeepers get angry, Jesus says that there's "joy in heaven" when the lost sheep is rescued, when a misplaced coin is found, when the prodigal comes home.

And so the question I ask is this.  Who, exactly are the lost?  And who are the found?

I want to tell you another story about my time at Burning Man.  As I said earlier, it is a “gift” economy… everyone brings something to give, even if just hugs. [One person offered ‘gluten free’ hugs.]  One of the “gifts” I gave was to volunteer at the Temple every day as a Temple Guardian, which means I was charged with “holding space” for those who visited: answering questions, embracing those in need of comfort, helping to protect the sacredness of each person’s experience.  

As the week went by, what struck me the most was how deeply spiritual and spiritually hungry so many people are, and how authentically they were reaching out and connecting to God – through music, rituals, and every faith tradition imaginable.  They were led by Tibetan monks, Hindu yogis, Native American shamans…all opening their hearts to our creator. 

One early morning, a young couple approached me, clearly on the tail end of a long night out (or two), probably substance induced.  The young woman asked me, pointing to her dazed partner, “Can he please have a drink of your water?  He really needs it…”  They evidently noticed my camelback water tube.   I said, sure, as long as you don’t mind my germs….

You wouldn’t believe the look on her face - pure joy.  They both drank, and she said.  “I love you!  You are beautiful!  Over and over again.  Her name was Kim, his was Douglas.  We shared stories and exchanged hugs.  I couldn’t help but think, “When I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink…”

Who was lost, who was found?

Later that day, when my temple shift was over, I decided I needed to go for a long run and took off out into the “deep playa,” clad in my running clothes, running shoes and empty handed, feeling freer than I have in years.  It was hot, but dry with a cool breeze and the sun felt great at first as I ran past all the art installations to the far reaches of the desert playa.  As I was about a half hour in to it, it occurred to me that I had made a big time mistake not carrying any water and was really beginning to feel dehydrated. 

Right about then, a fellow on a bike hollered out to me:  “Are you thirsty?”  I said “Oh Yes!   He rode up and opened his vest, into which he’d affixed a row of water bottles – filled with electrolytes, he told me.  “Are you sure that’s all that’s in them?” I asked, (jokingly)….and after receiving his assurance, gladly accepted his generous offering.  “My ex-wife was a runner, looked just like you,” He said.  “I could tell you needed water!” 

“I love you!” I exclaimed.  [I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink.]

We got to talking and he told me how, earlier in the day, he had lost his sunglasses, and someone came up to him, offering him just the right pair to match his leggings, which were covered with a pattern of colorful, funky sunglasses.

So I ask again.  Who was lost and who was found that day?

The simple answer is: we all were.  And that, I believe is the point of today’s parable.  We are all the lost, and more importantly, we are all the found, the sheep, the coin, the sinners and the tax collectors.  We are all recipients of God’s outrageous love.  And Jesus comes to us and finds us in ways we’d never expect, dines with us, quenches our thirst, feeds us in the holy mystery of the Eucharist just as he did the sinners and the tax collectors.  It’s only when we fool ourselves that somehow we have earned this or deserve this more than others do, that we in fact block ourselves from it. When we question Jesus’ righteousness in feeding those with whom we have fundamental differences, then we become just like those scribes and the Pharisees in today’s Gospel.

It is my prayer that we can all remember this as we ponder the effects of 9/11, the divisions we face in the upcoming elections, and the opportunities for a ministry of reconciliation as we begin our program year.  It is when we can truly come to acknowledge our own lost- and found-ness, that we can welcome everyone to the table. We become what we already are. All of us, found.[2]







[1]Daniel Souweine, “Burning Man critics miss the point,” Huffington Post, September 15, 2015

[2] Gratitude goes to the Rev. Herbert Jones who granted me permission to weave some of the ideas presented in his sermon for Proper 19C 2013 into these two concluding paragraphs.

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