Homily: The Rev. Oran Warder
Then God said, Let there be light! I speak to you in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
There is an old story that perhaps you have heard many times before. I cannot think of a more fitting time—or a more appropriate setting—or a more perfect occasion—to hear it yet again.
A Sunday school teacher is preparing a lesson for the Feast of All Saints. This imaginative and creative teacher thought that there could be no better way to teach the children about the saints of God than to take them on a tour of their own church and to look closely at its stained glass windows. True to their original intent, and true to the lesson plan, each window was not only a feast of color and beauty, each window also highlighted the life and witness of one of the saints, each window told a story of faith. At the conclusion of the tour, and after returning to the classroom, the teacher asked the children, Can you tell me, who are the saints of God? One of them responded, without hesitation, The saints are the ones that the light shines through. Indeed, the saints are the ones that the light shines through.
Like the windows he created, God’s light poured through the life and the work and the witness of Rowan LeCompte. As we gather this morning in this magnificent Cathedral, God’s light continues to flow through Rowan LeCompte. Look in any direction. From his great work, the west rose window, and the clerestory windows above us, to the incredible resurrection mosaics beneath us. Even in a space with no natural light, those mosaics, like his windows, exhibit his three signature characteristics: clarity of design, richness in color, and sparkle. Rowan himself was the very embodiment of those same characteristics—particularly the sparkle. He never lost a childlike fascination with the world and he sparkled with delight at the beauty and wonder of creation. Look in any direction. We are all here because the light that flowed through his life in some way touched ours. In his life, work, and witness, divine light poured through.
God’s presence is unmistakable in Rowan’s life, yet he often demurred when talking about his own faith. When pressed, he would speak in broad and general categories. If asked if he believed in God, he would say that he believed in love and kindness and compassion. If pressed further, he might say that he had been told that God is, indeed, all of those things: love, kindness, and compassion. And if that were true, then perhaps, faith in God was not such a stretch after all.
Rowan’s work, however, tells an entirely different story. Far from demur or even subtle, his works are bold statements of faith. The LeCompte window I know best is not here in the National Cathedral but occupies the chapel of the St. Paul’s Church, Alexandria, Virginia, the parish that I am privileged to serve. It is part of my everyday life there. The window was commissioned by a family mourning the death of a teen-aged son. Listen to Rowan in his own words describing this window:
[This window is] to be a meditation on the human spirit … a tangible sign of the tender memories a gifted and well-loved son has left his family. In the semi-abstract design, a green form suggesting a tree trunk rises, as a life rises in the world, with far-spreading roots and many convolutions of form. In its early strength it finds itself involved with the fascinating complications … of other lives and all the varieties of earthly experience. But then a sweep of darker glass and little blue flames across the window shows the coming of pain and travail, finally of death itself. Then in the design occurs a symbol of what we hope for and believe in, a suggestion of the sky opening, a doorway of light recalling the “gates of larger life” [spoken] of [in] the Prayer Book. Beyond that, at the top of the window, radiating warm beams offer the thought of the many new directions that are surely reasonable components of eternal life; everywhere around them are holly green and red and sparkling little white notes like snowflakes or Christmas candles to symbolize new birth and the new life in a fresh world beyond the pain of the present. … May its transparent depth send meaning and quiet joy radiating out from its dark corner.
Rowan knew darkness in his own life yet was irresistibly drawn to light, and in doing so—drew countless others. His life’s work is a reflection of God’s initial creative act: the act of illumination. Creating out of nothing, moving over chaos and deep darkness, God’s very first manifestation is the creation of light. Let there be light, God commanded, and so it was—and it was good. In contrast to nothingness, darkness, and chaos, light is the very basis for the whole created order, light is the foundation of all the other acts of creation, light is the source of life itself. By separating the light from the darkness and calling the light, day, and the darkness, night, God establishes the notion of time and also establishes divine dominion over all that would follow. Everything that exists depends upon the creating power of God, and light was only the beginning. Rowan helped us to remember that truth, but also reminded us, like the Genesis account, that the work of creation is not finished. We have a part to play as well.
The great North African theologian of the fourth century, Augustine of Hippo, arguably one of the greatest theologians of any age, once said something very simple, yet very profound. He said: We cannot act without God, and God chooses not to act without us. We cannot act without God—God chooses not to act without us. The work of creation is not finished. We are invited to partner with God to continue the work of creation, to carry out God’s loving purpose for the world.
Michael McCarthy’s stunning introit this morning beautifully captures this same theme. Keep us to building, Master; may our hands ne’er falter when the dream is in our hearts. Rowan, with the dream in his heart, was driven to keep creating. His first-hand experience of war made him a man of peace—and a lover of justice. His first-hand experience of sadness made him a man of joy—full of empathy and kindness. His first-hand experience of grief made him a man of hope and of deep compassion—with a great zest for life. He loved his beloved Peggy with utter devotion. He cherished his family, his many treasured friends and colleagues. Certainly a perfectionist, yet not perfect by any stretch, he never stopped creating, and never ceased to shine.
There is little wonder that the light, which began creation, would also be the light of its redemption. God’s Eternal Word came to us as a life, and that life was the light of the world. That light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. That is our hope this day.
We cannot honor, and celebrate, and give thanks for life and light of Rowan LeCompte, without honoring, and celebrating, and giving thanks for the Source of that life and light, the One who is love, and kindness, and compassion; the One, who even amid continued darkness draws us to light and invites us to BE light to the world; the One who invites us into partnership, to carry on the work of creation and the loving purpose for which we were created.
We cannot honor, and celebrate, and give thanks for the life and light of Rowan LeCompte without pondering our own response to the divine light of Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, light that has been poured upon us, embedded within us, so that it may shine forth in the world to the glory of God.
O keep us building, Master; may our hands Ne’er falter when the dream is in our hearts.
I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.