“Homily in Tribute to Bill Randolph on the Occasion of his Funeral”
by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson, priest-in-chage, Church of the Intercession
The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, NYC
June 10, 2021
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the year that King Uzziah died, the prophet Isaiah saw a vision of the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And they called one to another, they called one to another, they called one to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.”
In the Book of Exodus, the Lord said to Moses:
. . . you shall make a mercy-seat of pure gold . . . You shall make two cherubim of gold . . . at the two ends of the mercy-seat. They shall face each other; the faces of the cherubim shall be turned towards the mercy-seat (calling one to another, calling one to another). You shall put the mercy-seat on the top of the ark . . . There I will meet you, and from above the mercy-seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the covenant.
These are two depictions of worship – one takes place in heaven, the other here on earth, but they are essentially the same. Together, these Scriptures instruct us in how to call down God’s presence – the Shekinah glory (in our American English), the Shech-i-nah (in Hebrew) – into our midst, into our community. It is when we praise God – one to another, one to another, one to another, calling to each other, both in voice and in spirit – that God comes down, in the midst of praise, in the midst of worship, to occupy the mercy seat.
These passages also give us a splendid portrayal of the vocation of a church musician, who can mightily make the manifestation of God’s glory possible. This is of course true of all church musicians, but it is especially true of Anglican church musicians, since our churches are not, the Lord knows, primarily churches of doctrine, but churches of common prayer, common worship – we seek God’s presence as we sing and pray together – calling one to another, one to another. We all have a role to play – musicians, choir, congregation, clergy, we all work together to create this climate of worship, this mercy seat, this invitation to God’s glory.
This was Bill Randolph’s ministry, his vocation, his life. Every second of every day Bill was aware of his calling, and his life was devoted to fulfilling it. He made music from infancy; Bill and his late beloved mother Eleanor and his sister Valerie, all told me that he played whatever he could as a baby, banging silverware and pots, anything he could get his little hands on, fascinated with tone and rhythm. As a young boy he had a toy organ that he would play for hours on end at an age when most children have an attention span of maybe two minutes. Bill always knew exactly what he was meant to do with his life. Martineau has said that “Music is spirit taking form” – and that Spirit – the Holy Spirit – in the form of music took form in Bill.
I first met Bill about thirty years ago, here at the Cathedral. I was a new convert, serving as an acolyte, this was many years before my ordination; Bill had just become an assistant organist here. For whatever the reason we noticed each other. To this day I can’t really explain it, except as one of those things that God does to set you up in advance – you know how God puts you together with some one sometimes decades ahead of some thing you’re supposed to do together, some shared destiny? It was that kind of a deep calling to deep thing, we recognized a common spirit in each other – not a common talent, many of you know that I am woeful at music – but a common spirit. Even though we were a real odd couple, we hit it off.
Of course, what was most obvious about Bill was that he was an astonishingly gifted organist, but what also became clear quickly once you got to know him was that Bill was a warrior, in every aspect of his life. As a gay, Black man he fought bigotry and homophobia in every arena of his life. As a gay Black musician who strove above all to be an Episcopal Church organist, he fought the racism inside our own church, and he had to fight for acceptance even among his fellow organists.
Bill also fought for music itself, now so often considered expendable, to be respected and restored as central to life and liturgy where it had been discarded to the side of the road. We spoke of the shared pain of living in an age when music is considered non-essential – the first item cut from school programs and from church budgets. Sometimes we spoke of how wonderful it would be if we lived in a society that recognized that musicians were as essential as contractors for building buildings – musicians were on the payroll to play as Solomon’s Temple was constructed – and even for inspiration in war – as recently as the Civil War musicians on the battlefield played to inspire soldiers – they were paid as members of the army, wielding the power of music instead of bayonets or cannons.
The point is not that music should promote war – of course not – but that its power used to be recognized universally. The awesome power of music to change the atmosphere, inspire and to heal, was what brought David into the king’s palace for the first time – David played the lyre to ease King Saul’s mental illness. I wonder – I just wonder – if the absence of music from our subway system has contributed to the surge in violence we’ve seen underground. The subway buskers are just now beginning to return; they may make as much of a difference down there as more police, let’s wait and see and pray.
Bill himself knew healing through music numerous times, he would play even as he was fighting through serious illnesses and the back condition that plagued him especially over the past few years; just the act of playing would often heal him. Bill was also a warrior when it came to his health; he received last rites multiple times. One of his most frightening illnesses began on Christmas Eve of 2017, when he was so ill with what turned out to be a very serious pneumonia that he had to lay down on the organ bench at Intercession between having to play, dragging himself up to the keyboard to play – and of course he played well, despite being so sick. The next week I was called to go to NY Presbyterian. I arrived in the ICU to find doctors frowning, shaking their heads, saying he wasn’t going to make it. I administered the Last Rites. The following week, Bill had pulled back from the brink and was sent home.
This was about two weeks before our church was scheduled to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land; Bill and Justin were supposed to come, but how could Bill possibly be strong enough? A week before the trip I got a text from him, one sentence: “How do I pack?” with the little emoji of plane taking off. Bill was not going to miss this trip. As anyone who has been on a Holy Land pilgrimage knows, it’s arduous, but Bill managed every bit of it.
That pilgrimage changed Bill. He, like many on the pilgrimage, felt the Scriptures spring to life inside at the Western Wall, he felt Jesus’ love like never before as he walked the Via Dolorosa, and at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the traditional site of Calvary, he gained an awareness of eternity that transformed his relationship to the present moment.
That is one of the great gifts of liturgical music: it grounds us in the present moment, yet connects us to the eternal, just like the Bible. To produce great music, one must be utterly concentrated on the task at hand, yet fluid and free enough to allow the music to pass through one’s training, talent, and personality, emerging as a gift from the Spirit realm to us here on earth.
Bill, like all great musicians, had a personal style, yet he always had the power to surprise. Having had the opportunity to serve with him week after week, I kind of knew what he was gonna do, and there were some things I looked forward to. Whenever I saw that he had picked “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones” as one of hymns, I looked forward to the amazing way he would play a fanfare right at the top of the intro – somehow getting full state trumpet sound out of our half-working organ at Intercession, then change the registers in a nanosecond, jump into a driving tempo, finish with a glissando, followed by a majestic pause before our magnificent choir would enter at the first verse. All of that took maybe 45 seconds in total, but it was absolutely thrilling.
I knew Bill would do that, but then he would come up with the unexpected, the surprises – like an organ setting of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, of all things, here on the Great Organ. I know the orchestration of Nutcracker intimately, I stage managed it with live orchestra, and it was astonishing to hear every section in that score come out of the organ? Unbelievable.
I also will never forget sitting at the top of the tall stadium seating in giant Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, Bill on the largest pipe organ in the world – riding it like he was taming a bucking bronco – getting lifted out of my seat as the sound whipped – ripped – around the curved corners of the hall; Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, I get chills talking about it.
Those are just a few of my favorite moments of Bill’s playing; I’m sure all of you have your own list of favorites, too. But the real beauty of those moments, brilliant as they were, was that we knew what they were while we were in them. Bill biggest gift to me over the last eight years we shared together, was that we knew what we had while we had it. Particularly after that Holy Land pilgrimage, we made a point of being frequently and openly grateful for each other, thanking each other often, in real time.
Bill’s life reminds us to be in the moment, with those you love – we never know when we will wake up on a September 11 like it’s a normal day and go to be bed having suffered an unspeakable tragedy, or maybe we won’t go to bed at all. We never know which Sunday will be our last ever in church because a pandemic will shut the church. The lesson: Live now! Love now! Have gratitude every day. Rejoice in the Lord always! Always rejoice.
A few years ago, I remember standing in our clergy sacristy while Bill and the choir were rehearsing before the service; it was Good Shepherd Sunday, because they were rehearsing the beautiful choral version of Shepherd Me O God that we would sing every year on that day. I remember closing my eyes, leaning against my closet, and saying to myself: Rhonda, pay attention to this, because this is as good as it gets.
Bill was good as it gets. Please, Church, remember his courageous life-long construction of the bridge between heaven to earth so that we could have a world, church, a space, a mercy seat, for God’s glory. Remember Bill’s life of Spirit taking form, his making possible our moments, together, saying, singing, praying, praising, calling one to another, in worship. And above all – remember Bill’s music, the music, the music.
What do we do when we appreciate a musician? We give an ovation, right? Now please don’t yell, don’t take off your masks (pandemic and all of that), but let’s give Bill one final ovation here in the greatest Cathedral in the world in the greatest city in the world, because Bill Randolph was good as it gets.
Thank you, buddy!