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The Drum Major Instinct

In yesterday’s Gospel lesson James and John asked Jesus if they might have the seat on his right hand and the one on his left when he came to rule. The question made it clear they didn’t really understand the kind of Dominion Jesus came to establish. Then the other disciples got angry when they heard what they had asked for. Jesus tried to explain to them that these were the kinds of ambitions that secular people without spiritual values pursued. “It is not to be like this among you.”

Well, that’s a nice thought. During my sermon on this text, I played an excerpt from Dr. Martin Luther King’s last sermon, which was on this same text from Mark’s Gospel. Dr. King’s sermon was entitled “The Drum Major Instinct.” Interestingly, Dr. King was very careful not to discourage the instinct in the congregation that packed the sanctuary at Ebenezer Baptist Church that April morning in 1968.

I’ve listened to the sermon several times and read it until I can almost quote it by heart. As someone who, for many years, was the pastor of a congregation of people who had been ostracized and oppressed, I appreciate Dr. King’s pastor’s heart. He knew that his community needed to seek to become great women and men. His agenda in the sermon was the same as Jesus’ in his conversation with James and John.

Although the other 10 disciples grew angry with James and John, Jesus did not. Jesus did not condemn their ambition, but he did turn it. Jesus didn’t discourage James and John’s desire to achieve greatness; he simply redefined what that means. The pastor named King interpreted the king who was a Servant and said to us, “Everybody can be great because anybody can serve.”

You and I are called to be great women and men, and we are called to achieve that greatness in service to others. We want to be drum majors, but, like Dr. King, we must become drum majors for peace, for justice, for service. Servant leaders in those areas of life are critically needed.


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Rev. Michael Piazza

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