Through the early months of 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. seemed to sense that the end was coming near. As many have noted, his final speech the night before his assassination seemed almost prophetic. “I’ve been to the mountaintop…I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.” But even leading up to that night, King seemed to know the end was coming. Two months prior to his assassination, King preached a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church that has become known as the Drum Major Instinct in which he tried to remind everyone what is most important, not being in front, but being a servant.
The text for the sermon was Mark 10:35-45, the request of James and John to have positions of power. King begins by reminding his audience that inside all of us is a desire for recognition, importance, or attention. King calls this the drum major instinct, the “desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first.” He says that we have this need all of our lives and we never really get over it. It is a need that causes great struggle in our lives and it has the ability to become destructive. It is the drum major instinct that causes us to think we are better than others. It is the drum major instinct that causes us to become egotistical and conceited. It is the drum major instinct that causes us to hoard our resources, to become unforgiving, to separate into classes or groups, and to become selfish. The drum major instinct makes us concerned only with ourselves and it seeks our own personal greatness through the praise and recognition of others.
But Jesus shows us a new type of greatness, the greatness of being a servant. “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45) Jesus’s attitude toward what makes one great is in stark contrast to what the world recognizes as great and even what our own desires are for greatness. Jesus defines a greatness that is in stark contrast to the drum major instinct, in which the most important thing is not about us being in charge, doing great things, and gaining recognition but is about using whatever role and opportunities we have to serve others and bless them.
King then ends the sermon by giving some directions for his own funeral (again prophetic). He says, when I die, don’t make the eulogy long and don’t talk about the Nobel Peace Prize or the other accomplishments I’ve received. Instead say, “Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others…he tried to love somebody…I want you to be able to say I did try to feed the hungry, I did try to clothe the naked. I did try to visit those in prison…Tell them I did try to love and serve humanity.”
King’s words that day are just as relevant today. They are words that we need hear because they call us to abandon our cultural understandings of what makes someone great. They challenge us to abandon our normal standards by which we measure success. They challenge us to abandon our stereotypical characteristics used to judge effective leaders. And they remind us of the battle raging inside of us. Just as Adam and Eve ate of the fruit in an attempt to be their own gods, we too struggle every day to be god of our own lives. We wrestle with the feelings of wanting to be important, wanting to be validated, wanting someone to recognize us as great. Yet Jesus reminds us that greatness is not in what we achieve, awards we win, or fame given to us by others. Greatness is in service and love. Greatness is in helping others better themselves. Greatness is found in making life better for everyone else.
On this day, when many are remembering King, may we remember him in the way he wants to be remembered: as one who tried to love, who tried to serve, who tried to make life better for others. And may we use King’s example to try to value those same traits in our own lives. May we embody the words of Jesus and always strive to love and serve others.