Tag Archives: Drum Major Instinct

A heart full of grace

In today’s Gospel, Matthew 20: 17-28, James and John ask Jesus for positions of power in his Kingdom.

It would have been easy for Jesus to just dismiss them as being power-hungry, but he doesn’t.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., noted in his sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct,” Jesus recognized in them the drive that is in all of us, the drive to be recognized, the drive to be important.

This morning, after reading the Gospel, I sat, listened to, and read King’s sermon, available here.

I had heard it first in the mid-eighties and been struck by its call to the greatness we are all capable of – the greatness of love and of service.

Here are a few excerpts that touch me:

[Jesus] 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.”

…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.

Take some time today to read or listen to this sermon. It changed my life. What is important is to love, to serve. And so today I want to recall these important words of King and carry them with me all day:

You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

The drum major instinct

In today’s Gospel (Matthew 20: 17-28) the mother of James and John asks Jesus to give them a privileged position in his Reign. The other apostles get upset. Jesus responds by calling them to be servants, not like the rulers of this world who love to lord it over others.

On February 4, 1968, two months before he was killed, Martin Luther King, Jr., gave an incredible sermon on the parallel passage in Mark (10: 35-45), on “The Drum Major Instinct.” It is well worth reading, or listening to, and can be found here.

I have loved this sermon since I first heard it because it acknowledges that all people are called to be servants and we don’t need to be doctors or Ph.D.s or big shots. What is important is to serve.

Today looking at the sermon I found that King also had strong words for the US. Since I have been rather disturbed by the US vice-president’s visit here as you can read on my other blog here, I decided to share King’s very strong words:

I would submit to you this morning that what is wrong in the world today is that the nations of the world are engaged in a bitter, colossal contest for supremacy….

But this is why we are drifting. And we are drifting there because nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. “I must be first.” “I must be supreme.” “Our nation must rule the world.” … And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I’m going to continue to say it to America, because I love this country too much to see the drift that it has taken.

God didn’t call America to do what she’s doing in the world now….God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I’m going to continue to say it. And we won’t stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.

But God has a way of even putting nations in their place…. The God that I worship has a way of saying, “Don’t play with me.”… He has a way of saying, as the God of the Old Testament used to say to the Hebrews, “Don’t play with me, Israel. Don’t play with me, Babylon.… Be still and know that I’m God. And if you don’t stop your reckless course, I’ll rise up and break the backbone of your power.” … And that can happen to America. …

And thus, for these and other words, and for his prophetic words against racism and militarism,  people plotted against Martin Luther King, Jr., as they did against Jeremiah (18:18).

Will we listen to the prophets and to Jesus and serve, or will we seek to lord it over others?

That’s a critical question for us and for our country this Lent.


Last year I also wrote a blog entry on this text and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech. You can read it here.