As the vision for Micah became a gleam in the eyes of Fredericksburg clergy, a passionate group from our community churches loaded a bus to Washington D.C. Their pilgrimage took them to the Adam’s Morgan neighborhood, one of the most culturally diverse sections of the city, known both for its luxurious nightlife and human poverty. It was there they experienced how an ecumenical church could promote both the inward journey of growing in love of God, self and others and the outward journey to help mend some part of creation. After touring the many ministries that the community’s Church of the Savior had been building since the 1940’s, they returned to Fredericksburg and sat on the bus for hours dreaming of a local ministry to take care of Fredericksburg’s least. By 2005, that vision had unraveled to become Micah Ecumenical Ministries, a local non-profit that cares for Fredericksburg’s homeless.
Years later, before finding my place at Micah, I set out on my own pilgrimage to this mission-driven faith community. I was seeking greater purpose in life and had applied for the Church of the Savior’s 12-month Discipleship Year program, a residential experience that actively engages volunteers in issues of social justice and servant-leadership. I was drawn to this faith community by its blunt efforts to be the authentic church, the face of Christ to the poor, the sick, imprisoned and oppressed. My mother and I visited on a Sunday morning a few weeks before Easter. We worshiped with one of the Church of the Savior’s scattered congregations. And as it would happen, the nearly 90-year-old Gordan Cosby, founder of this ministry, was preaching.
He spoke that morning of the significance of Luke 19:28-40, the story of Jesus ridding a donkey into Jerusalem just days before his crucifixion. The exact words are faint to me now, but I cannot experience a Palm Sunday to this day without a memory of the message I heard that morning.
The Sunday before Easter is usually one of great procession, beauty and celebration of the Messiah’s arrival. As a little girl, I couldn’t wait to get my hands around my own palm branch so that I too could participate in the festivities. But Gordan Cosby called his listeners that morning to consider honoring Jesus in a far deeper way than recreating a crowd of palms each year. Anyone can wave their faith about like a palm, he said, just as the bystanders did the day of the parade we learn about in the Gospels. But somehow we forget that same crowd of people vibrantly chose to crucify the man we now call Christ, only a few days later.
In Church of the Savior they have a philosophy. Church leaders are trained in all the mechanics of being a good disciple–interpreting scripture, leading the faith, implementing mission in the community and shepherding their peers in Christ’s vision. But at the point of ordainment, they are not promoted with a title of priest, pastor, Father, reverend or even deacon. There is only one true church leader, they say, and those who discern their call to lead Christian ministry become “donkeys” in their congregations, named for their role in ushering in the good news of Jesus.
It is the Palm Sunday story that inspires the donkey image in Church of the Savior ministry. While this humble beast is known through time as bearing the toughest jobs–plowing the fields, hauling loads and carrying people great distances–he is often discarded as a mere tool that exists for the sole purpose of serving his master. Year after year, even we overlook this character in one of the most important gospel stories. Instead, the donkey’s brays are resoundingly drowned out by the more glorious shouts of “hosannas!”
Gordon Cosby’s point that Sunday morning, years ago, was just that. If we overlook the donkey in this story, we miss the whole message. Christ the KING could have chosen to ride into the promised land with trumpets and chariots, potentially a more fitting caravan for the welcome he received by the city. But he specifically said to his disciples, “Go to the village ahead of you and as you enter it, you will find a donkey’s colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it, and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘why are you untying it?’ say ‘the Lord needs it.” He forewent any possible pomp and circumstance and willingly chose the ugliest, clumsiest mode of transportation he could. But how telling is it for that humble ride to juxtapose against the backdrop of a royal welcome?
By embracing the worship of a king and resorting to the transport of a servant, Jesus sent a message on that ride into Jerusalem. Let’s not overlook the need to praise our Lord, I hear him say, but let us not let worship fall empty of the actions that make it real. Jesus calls us to be the donkey in this story, just as much as he asks the wide-eyed palm wavers to continue in their acts of worship. But we are not just to worship Him; we are to carry him and his message wherever it needs to go, so that others can encounter him, as well. Like the donkey, we do not have to be graceful or pretty to get the job done. We just have to understand Jesus as our master and accept what it takes to bring his vision forward.
What Gordon Cosby said to the congregation that morning altered my path. I got back on the metro with my mother and rode home. But when we reached our stop, she looked at me and said, “You don’t have to go to Washington D.C. and spend a year figuring out what you want to to do with your life to be the donkey in that story, you know.”
I pulled my application from the Discipleship Year process and sent an email that night to a pastor of one of the now Micah churches. I poured my heart out for role I thought I could play in offering a face of Christ to the poor in our local community. Months later, I was quitting a job I had planned since childhood as a life’s profession, and setting foot into my first day of work as a “donkey.”
So, much has happened these last six years. And not a single day goes by that I don’t ask why our Lord thought a 25-year-old reporter knew a darn thing about helping the homeless. But my palm Sunday experience so long ago, really says it all. There isn’t a one of us placed on this earth that Jesus didn’t call to find our selves on all fours and carry his message and his example everywhere that we go. Of all stories there are, this story speaks the loudest of the qualifications to do so.
The catalyst himself, Gordon Cosby, passed away this last week within the humblest of quarters at Christ House, a Church of the Savior ministry that shelters and cares for homeless who are sick or dying. In his final days he spoke to those close to him about the way he saw the vision of Jesus Christ. Those words are posted on the Church of the Savior blog.
“This is the true joy of life,” he said. “The being used up for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for a moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”
Consider the torch passed my fellow future generationers. Wave palms if you must. But if we truly desire our Lord to use us for a purpose, Christ is very clear about our place.