In my morning devotions today, I decided to read a sermon of Dr. Martin Luther King’s along with my Daily Office reading. (A few months ago, I bought a collection of Rev. King’s sermons and writings to read periodically.) I stumbled upon a sermon called, “The Drum Major Instinct”. It’s one of his more well-known sermons especially because excerpts of it were read at his funeral – you’ll see why in just a moment. I was really impacted by his words, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect, remember, and learn from this man whose life is commemorated today.
Preaching from Mark 10:35-45, Rev. King points out the tragedy of John and James’ request for greatness. He calls it the drum major instinct – the universal human desire that all of us have to be out front, to lead the parade, a desire to be first. Even from birth, we are just little bundles of ego. We love to hear people praise us, talk about us, and reinforce our worth. We want to be superior, and we will use people or obliterate people to feel that way. Left unchecked, Rev. King noted that this instinct can become very dangerous. He observed the drum major instinct at work in social circles where people jockey for standing by living outside their means. He saw it at work in criminals who want to be known; in advertisers who want you to buy their product; among nations who war against each other in a battle for supremacy; and among races that want to feel superior simply based on the color of skin.
He even saw the drum major instinct at work in the church. I love how he responded to this instinct when manifested in the church:
And the church is the one place where a doctor ought to forget that he’s a doctor. The church is the one place where a Ph.D. ought to forget that he’s a Ph.D. The church is the one place that a schoolteacher ought to forget the degree she has behind her name. The church is the one place where the lawyer ought to forget that he’s a lawyer. And any church that violates the ‘whosoever will, let him come’ doctrine is a dead, cold church, and nothing but a little social club with a thin veneer of religiosity.
The truly startling thing about Rev. King’s sermon was how he described Jesus’ response to James and John’s request, and its application to us. He noted that Jesus didn’t call out their selfishness or deny them. Instead, Jesus redefined greatness. True greatness comes not by favoritism, but by fitness. What follows is one of his most quoted excerpts (but this time in its proper context!)
And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important – wonderful. If you want to be recognized – wonderful. If you want to be great – wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s your new definition of greatness. And this morning, the thing that I like about it…by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great. Because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve…You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.
Rev. King goes on to describe the impact of Jesus as a humble servant on the whole of humanity. The way down is actually the way up. The key impact this sermon had on me was that Rev. King inspires me not to seek passive humility, but rather actively pursue the things of the heart of God now by serving. And in so doing, to pursue greatness in the kingdom by being the servant of all. I’ll close with his closing to the sermon. I think it’s a fitting and prophetic voice on this Martin Luther King Day 2012.
I’d like somebody to mention [at my funeral], that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day, that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day, that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try, in my life, to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say, on that day, that I did try, in my life, to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.
God, guard us from the ‘me-first’, empty glorying, YouTube celeb status-seeking, rockstar worshiping, first in line, VIP desiring drum major instinct. Raise up drum majors who take the Gospel and its implications seriously, but not ourselves too seriously. Give us a holy ambition that seeks greatness in the kingdom by serving the socks off people!!!
Happy Martin Luther King Day, friends…
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