Come, Holy Spirit. Fill the hearts of your faithful people and kindle in them the fire of thy love. Send forth thy spirit and they shall be made new and thou shalt renew the face of the earth. Amen.
One week ago, at 10 p.m. local time, bullets rained down on 22,000 people attending the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival, A single man with an automatic weapon killed 58 people. At least 527 more were wounded—either by bullets or in the chaos of the events. It is being called the most deadly mass shooting in American history. The three-day, open-air country-music festival had been held in Las Vegas uneventfully for the past four years.
As a journalist, my instinct is always to investigate what has happened by getting as close to the source as I possibly can. I went to the web site of the music festival and found that the site had been replaced by a single splash page, an open letter to the world about the tragedy. In part, it said this:
While we will try to move forward, we will never forget this day.
We will not let hate win over love.
We will not be defeated by senseless violence.
We will persevere and honor the souls that were lost.
The first question that everyone asks in this sort of situation (and we have had far too many of them in recent years) is: What would make someone do that? What would make someone go and kill a bunch of people for seemingly no reason?
The real question that we need to ask, though, is this: What do we need to do to make sure that no one ever feels like they need to do that again? What needs to happen to connect people in ways that make such violence completely unimaginable?
Today’s Gospel offers us one answer to that question. Instead of starting at the end of the story, we need to start at the beginning, because how things begin inevitably impacts where they end up. We have to look at the cornerstone.
In speaking about himself, Jesus quoted scripture saying: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.’
As often happens, we are out of touch to the idea that Jesus is referencing… since today we leave building structures to the construction experts and architects. In that day and time, though, everyone understood the reference.
The cornerstone (also called the foundation stone or setting stone) is the first stone set in the construction of a masonry foundation. It’s critical to set the first stone correctly, since all other stones will be set in reference to this stone. That first stone determines the position of the entire structure.
As human beings, we are building things all the time and we need to choose our cornerstones very carefully, very thoughtfully. As individuals, yes…but also as a community, as a nation, and as a world. We build systems, governments, ways of thinking, relationships, and communities of various types. Upon what cornerstones will we choose to build?
The answer is Christ… and this cornerstone allows us to build structures of love, compassion, care, and service. It keeps us strong in times of trouble, because trouble does come. (As Archbishop Desmond Tutu has often said “Dear Child of God, I am sorry to say that suffering is not optional.” ) This is the cornerstone that let’s us build strong community that recognizes the worth, importance, and dignity of every human being in ways that will end tragedy before it even begins. It is this cornerstone that calls us to reach out to those who are sick, alone, poor, afraid, angry, tired, or disheartened.
This week, as I watched coverage of the aftermath of the shooting, I was struck by the wide gap that loomed between what we know about the shooter and what we know about his victims. Again and again, I heard stories of courage and love, of people scrambling to help each other, and of people risking themselves to save someone else. Dr. Phil interviewed one shooting survivor Thomas Gunderson, who was hit in the leg. He summed up the experience in this way: “I’m trying to find a positive message to this. When everyone was so terrified, it didn’t matter who you were or what you looked like, anything like that, you grabbed the person next to you and you helped them.”
Then I tried to find out more about 64-year-old Stephen Paddock. He was an accountant who invested in real estate. He liked to play poker. He had an elderly mother and a brother who lived thousands of miles away on the other side of the country. He was not a member of a political organization. He was not a member of any religious group. He was not married, and he did not have children. He lived with a girlfriend, who seemed to know very little about his activities. His neighbors did not know him well either. He was not, seemingly, connected to others… and that is perhaps where the seeds of this tragedy were sown.
Last week, I heard General Martin Dempsey, who has retired from being the Chief of Staff of the United States Army. He spoke about leadership. He said that the secret to being a good leader is helping people to know that they belong. He told stories of men that he had led who made bad decisions early on, selling drugs, having fights, breaking the law, who cane back years later as successful career military people and they said it was because he believed in then, because he made them feel like they belong. That struck a chord with me… He is getting to the heart of what it means to respect the dignity of every human being. He has encapsulated what we are doing here as a faith community
Another nugget of wisdom from Desmond Tutu is this: “A person is a person through other persons. None of us comes into the world fully formed. We would not know how to think, or walk, or speak, or behave as human beings unless we learned it from other human beings. We need other human beings in order to be human. I am because other people are.”
We are called to do this work of making everybody know they belong, because we are all human and belonging is what transforms us. Belonging is what gives us the power and wisdom to love the world the way God intends. Belonging is what heals us and those around us and that averts tragedies before they even begin.
We are called to lead this kind of change in the world, to be the catalyst that creates space for everyone and helps everyone know that they belong. Today, as we bless the new labyrinth, which is open to the whole world, an invitation to come and be in spend time in this place, we are taking a step toward that leadership of welcome.
I want to tell you about another concert… a concert that had a much different ending to the one in Las Vegas. Last week, I took my daughter and her friend to a hip hop concert by John Bellion. It was in San Francisco at the Armory. 4,000 people were there. (Do you need a second to picture me at a standing room only hip hop concert?) OK.. so at the end of the concert, John Bellion got the crowds attention.
He said: “Look around at this stage and look at the people on this stage. Do we look like [and here i need to paraphrase just a bit]..do we look like we give a thought to the color of the people on this stage? We don’t. If you think your skin color is holding you back, or if you think your skin color makes you better than anyone else, stop it. Just wake up in the morning and think about how you can love your neighbor and how you can make this world a better place. And for tonight, let’s make this a place of unity and peace.” And everyone in the gathered assembly cheered.
It’s all about the cornerstone.
Preached by the Rev. Hailey McKeefry Delmas at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in San Carlos, CA, on October 8, 2017.