Two months before he was killed, Martin Luther King, Jr., preached a sermon on Mark’s version of today’s Gospel (Matthew 20: 17-28). He based it on a 1952 sermon of the Methodist preacher J. Wallace Hamilton.
In the 1980s two fellow campus ministers and I ran across a recording of that sermon, The Drum Major Instinct. You can read it and listen to it here. We found that it offered a vision that could appeal to our human desire to be outstanding and our calling by God to serve.
King does not despise the desire for greatness but situates that desire in the call to serve.
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.
That new definition of greatness undercuts our usual ways of looking at greatness – being greater than others, lording it over them by our wisdom or power or wealth. But, as King went on to preach,
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.
To be great, to serve, as the Lord asks we need “a heart full of grace” and a “soul generated by love.”
I have been reading a lot about the permanent diaconate in the Catholic Church the past few months. What I find most intriguing is that the diaconate really is about the service of charity. Yes the deacon reads the Gospel; he can preach; he serves at the altar. But he is called to make the connection between what we do at the altar and what we do with those at the margins of society. He is called, in the words of Pope Paul VI, to be the “animator of service” in the community.
That’s what all of us are called to be – to be driving forces of service to witness a church that serves.
This is the greatness to which we are all called.