Epiphany in honor of MLK Day

I've got some good news for you all. Well, actually, it's good news for me and I hope you'll be happy for me, but a little later when we do our general confession of sin, I'm proud to say I'll have one less thing to be sorry for this time.

I don't know about you, but when we do our confession – as we kneel there and ask God's forgiveness – I find there's a couple things that almost always come to my mind. A couple things that more often than not, I find myself always being sorry for. More often than not, when I consider the things done and left undone, it seems the failings I'm most aware of are hardness of heart and hardness of head.

Well, this past week, there was a small breakthrough in my hard-headedness. A moment of grace when I came to realize, thankfully before it was too late, that there was something important coming up. I get so busy with all the many things I have to do and want to do, that all too often I simply don't realize what's going on in the world around me.

You see, I knew some holiday was coming up. I knew the kids were going to be off from school Monday and all I could think of was, "Oh man, what am I going to do with them? Sonja's got to work. Thankfully, I have the day off, but how am I going to keep them occupied all day?" I didn't even really think about just what holiday it was – until Sophie reminded me.

What Sophie did for me was remind me that Monday is Martin Luther King Jr Day. Until Sophie told me what she was studying in school to prepare for the day, it just didn't register with me what day it was.

And that's a sad thing. That's a result of being a little too hard-headed and not being more aware of what's going on around me.

I'm really glad she reminded me of the day. I'm glad because Dr King is one of my all-time favorite heroes. Because I was able to stop and think about it for a little, I was able to make sure I found the time, as busy as this last week was, to look over some of his speeches and sermons and listen to a few that I have on cd and a few that are available online. I was able to really spend some time with the memory of Dr King.

There's something about Dr King's words that time and again bring me back to remembering the importance, and danger, of Christian ministry. His call was a call to fairness. His call was a call to freedom. His call, in my estimation, was a thoroughly Christ-centered witness to what God wants this world to look like – fairness and freedom.

In my research, I came across a particular sermon Dr King delivered that ends with a request for how he should be remembered. Portions of it were read at his funeral, but the entire manuscript is worth reading. Unfortunately, he lived back in a time when people could sit through a 1/2 hour or more sermon.

So, I made a few copies for you to take home and read at your leisure. And when this sermon gets posted on the website, you'll be able to do a simple search and find it for yourself. It is well worth the time.

But I find that there's parts of it that I just have to share with you. It's from a sermon that he wrote just a couple months before his assassination and it's entitled The Drum Major Instinct. Dr King begins with the reading from the Gospel of Mark in which James and John ask Jesus if they could sit at his right and left hand. You might recall Jesus' response: They will indeed drink from the cup that Jesus will drink and they will be baptized just as Jesus will. That passage ends with Jesus saying that whoever wishes to be great must become a servant and whoever wishes to be the greatest must be the servant of all.

Dr King writes [the following are all excerpts from the sermon]:
The setting is clear. James and John are making a specific request of the master. They had dreamed, as most of the Hebrews dreamed, of a coming king of Israel who would set Jerusalem free and establish his kingdom on Mount Zion, and in righteousness rule the world. And they thought of Jesus as this kind of king. And they were thinking of that day when Jesus would reign supreme as this new king of Israel. And they were saying, "Now when you establish your kingdom, let one of us sit on the right hand and the other on the left hand of your throne."

Now very quickly, we would automatically condemn James and John, and we would say they were selfish. Why would they make such a selfish request? But before we condemn them too quickly, let us look calmly and honestly at ourselves, and we will discover that we too have those same basic desires for recognition, for importance. That same desire for attention, that same desire to be first. Of course, the other disciples got mad with James and John, and you could understand why, but we must understand that we have some of the same James and John qualities. And there is deep down within all of us an instinct. It's a kind of drum major instinct — a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. And it is something that runs the whole gamut of life.

And so before we condemn them, let us see that we all have the drum major instinct. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade.

We like to do something good. And you know, we like to be praised for it. Now if you don't believe that, you just go on living life, and you will discover very soon that you like to be praised. Everybody likes it, as a matter of fact. And somehow this warm glow we feel when we are praised or when our name is in print is something of the vitamin A to our ego. Nobody is unhappy when they are praised, even if they know they don't deserve it and even if they don't believe it. The only unhappy people about praise is when that praise is going too much toward somebody else. But everybody likes to be praised because of this real drum major instinct.

There comes a time that the drum major instinct can become destructive. And that's where I want to move now. I want to move to the point of saying that if this instinct is not harnessed, it becomes a very dangerous, pernicious instinct. For instance, if it isn't harnessed, it causes one's personality to become distorted. I guess that's the most damaging aspect of it: what it does to the personality. If it isn't harnessed, you will end up day in and day out trying to deal with your ego problem by boasting. Have you ever heard people that — you know, and I'm sure you've met them — that really become sickening because they just sit up all the time talking about themselves. And they just boast and boast and boast, and that's the person who has not harnessed the drum major instinct.

And then the final great tragedy of the distorted personality is the fact that when one fails to harness this instinct, he ends up trying to push others down in order to push himself up. And whenever you do that, you engage in some of the most vicious activities. You will spread evil, vicious, lying gossip on people, because you are trying to pull them down in order to push yourself up. And the great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct.

Now the other problem is, when you don't harness the drum major instinct — this uncontrolled aspect of it — is that it leads to snobbish exclusivism.

And you know, that can happen with the church; I know churches get in that bind sometimes. I've been to churches, you know, and they say, "We have so many doctors, and so many school teachers, and so many lawyers, and so many businessmen in our church." And that's fine, because doctors need to go to church, and lawyers, and businessmen, teachers — they ought to be in church. But they say that — even the preacher sometimes will go all through that — they say that as if the other people don't count.

When the church is true to its nature, it says, "Whosoever will, let him come." And it does not suppose to satisfy the perverted uses of the drum major instinct. It's the one place where everybody should be the same, standing before a common master and savior. And a recognition grows out of this — that all men are brothers because they are children of a common father.

But let me rush on to my conclusion, because I want you to see what Jesus was really saying. What was the answer that Jesus gave these men? It's very interesting. One would have thought that Jesus would have condemned them. One would have thought that Jesus would have said, "You are out of your place. You are selfish. Why would you raise such a question?"

But that isn't what Jesus did; he did something altogether different. He said in substance, "Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you're going to be my disciple, you must be." But he reordered priorities. And he said, "Yes, don't give up this instinct. It's a good instinct if you use it right. It's a good instinct if you don't distort it and pervert it. Don't give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do."

And he transformed the situation by giving a new definition of greatness. And you know how he said it? He said, "Now brethren, I can't give you greatness. And really, I can't make you first." This is what Jesus said to James and John. "You must earn it. True greatness comes not by favoritism, but by fitness. And the right hand and the left are not mine to give, they belong to those who are prepared."

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 a 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 don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

This morning, you can be on his right hand and his left hand if you serve. It's the only way in.

Every now and then I guess we all think realistically about that day when we will be victimized with what is life's final common denominator — that something that we call death. We all think about it. And every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. And I don't think of it in a morbid sense. And every now and then I ask myself, "What is it that I would want said?" And I leave the word to you this morning.

If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don't want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize — that isn't important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards — that's not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.

I'd like somebody to mention that day 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. I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that's all I want to say.

If I can help somebody as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody with a word or song,
If I can show somebody he's traveling wrong,
Then my living will not be in vain.

If I can do my duty as a Christian ought,
If I can bring salvation to a world once wrought,
If I can spread the message as the master taught,
Then my living will not be in vain.

Yes, Jesus, I want to be on your right or your left side, not for any selfish reason. I want to be on your right or your left side, not in terms of some political kingdom or ambition. But I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world. Amen.

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