“Dying and Rising into the Spirit’s Rhythms”: Tim Kumfer on Gordon Cosby

Note:  It helps me to make sense of Gordon’s passing to post some of the thoughtful reflections on his life by friends.  So here’s another: excerpts from Tim Kumfer’s (above) sermon to the Eighth Day Community on March 24, 2013 (Palm Sunday).  Tim directs the Servant Leadership School in Washington, DC.  
So here we are at Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. I imagine that for many of us here it seems more like the end of Holy Week, having held vigil these past days as one of our great prophets passed on. You will have to forgive me if I am somewhat out of step with the liturgical season, and all too eager to speak of death and resurrection.  
Having learned over the weekend that Gordon’s spirit was ready to let go and that his bodily rhythms were steadily winding down, Joseph and I went to spend a few moments with him and Mary on Monday afternoon. By this time Gordon was curled up like a baby, close to completing the circle. His breathing was belabored, and he struggled to speak and open his eyes. We got down close to his bed, touched him, and thanked him. We told him ‘You have been a witness. We are so grateful for the gift you have given. We walk beside you as you prepare to cross over.’ Then, at Mary’s sweet yet firm Southern insistence, Joseph led those of us gathered in prayer. In these moments, and I’m sure in many others, that small room on Christ House’s second floor was transformed into a ‘thin place,’ a space in which the sacred is immediately palpable.
That same spirit was present on Wednesday night, when over a hundred people gathered at The Potter’s House following the news of Gordon’s death in the early hours that morning. People from all different walks of life shared about their encounter with this humble man from Lynchburg, one who at first glance didn’t appear all that inspiring, and how it fundamentally changed their life’s direction. Formerly homeless and would-have-been millionaires, prominent public figures and the everyday anonymous, we all gathered in gratitude for this life. Knowing that Gordon was the only one who could have brought us all together, we wondered what the loss of this particular somebody might mean for our collective body…
Not everyone knows about the small ‘d’ deaths that proceeded the new life so many of us have found in The Church of the Saviour. When Gordon returned home from the war, he was on fire to see the whole church renewed. Yet the humble way he went about doing so was not his initial plan. Young and ambitious man that he was, he sought to present his vision for the 21st Century church to prominent philanthropist and ecumenical advocate John D. Rockefeller, Jr. He thought that if this powerful and wealthy man would back him, things could really get cooking. Heading up to New York in his Sunday best, Gordon didn’t make it past the front office. Rockefeller’s assistant wisely sensed that a large sum of money would have drained this young pastor’s vision of its spiritual power. Gordon left empty-handed and emotionally deflated. To make a long story short, The Church of the Saviour’s held its first service not in a gleaming downtown church but a run-down old boarding house, which they scrubbed clean and painted themselves. Nine people made the member’s commitment that day. From this initial gathering grew a whole new way of envisioning church centered on the small, Spirit-called group of deeply committed people.
The mainline denominations, too, chose not to support this pastor and his dreams of a vibrant and vital Christianity. These bishops found Gordon to be too idealistic and perhaps even a bit cocky. (Elizabeth O’Connor didn’t put it that way in the official record but one could easily imagine.) They thought the idea of a racially integrated church in 1940’s Washington was incendiary and something to be avoided. This forced independence ultimately freed The Church of the Saviour to draw on diverse streams of the church, bringing together elements of evangelical discipline, mainline social conscience, and Catholic spirituality. It also enabled The Church of the Saviour to serve as a source of inspiration and renewal across the wider church. I can think of no other community whose conversation partners span such a theological and cultural spectrum.
Following those early lessons, openness to the dying and rising that the Spirit would invite came to mark the church and its structures. Gordon and others shared a real sense that we must let go of that which no longer serves life and intently listen for the Call placed on us both individually and communally. In 1976, the church made a radical decision, one that from the outside appeared foolish. With only 150 members, and just as its ministries to the city’s marginalized were really taking off, the Church decided to disperse into smaller faith communities. The vision of The Church of the Saviour as a well-ordered, world-changing single congregation was broken open so that the Spirit could carry its members more deeply into the life of the world. This was an exciting time, as Seekers, Eighth Day, Jubilee, and Potter’s House Church were soon born. Yet I am sure it was a painful time too. Lives were being called different directions, and ever-widening circles made it difficult to keep everyone together. Not everyone thought entering the diaspora was such a good idea.
It is difficult to even consider all the new life that has grown from this decision to follow the Spirit through the ‘death’ of one way of being church. When the Church of the Saviour was founded, it was unheard of that Baptists, Presbyterians, and Catholics would worship with one another. It was radical for black folks and white folks to even sit together as brothers and sisters. Yet how much more did the Spirit have prepared for us? Who could have known that Eighth Day’s communion table would stretch beyond our borders, defying national law and providing sanctuary for Central American refugees? Who could have foreseen Seekers church celebrating one of the first Christian marriages between women in DC? Who would have guessed that Church of the Saviour traditions would be intimately joined with black cultural expressions in the form of Friends of Jesus church? As we give ourselves to the dying, relinquishing control over how we think things should go, the Spirit breathes new life in us, raising us to heights we couldn’t have even imagined before.
Nearly forty years later, it is no secret that we continue to seek out structures that will serve life and respond to Call. We no longer have Gordon with us on the Way, a scout who has gone out ahead.  Yet I know that as we trust the Spirit and each other we will be taken care of, and we’ll be taken to new places…