“The drum major instinct” Oct 18 2009.
Preached by Rev. James Murray at Dominion-Chalmers United Church.
Recent polls show the Conservative government rising in popularity. The pundits think they might even get a majority when they go to the polls next time. So what would we think of Prime Minister Stephen Harper if he said he didn’t want another election because he was happy to govern with the current minority parliament?
A new hockey season is upon us. The Ottawa Senators are off to a good start, much to the delight of the local fans. Meanwhile the Toronto Maple Leafs are enduring their worst start to the season in club history. So what would we think of the coach Cory Cluston if he said he wouldn’t try to get the Sens into the playoffs, because he didn’t want to show up the Leafs?
In both cases, we would think they had gone stark raving mad. Politicians are supposed to want to govern with as much power as possible. Hockey teams are supposed to want to win the Stanley Cup. It’s what they do. It’s normal to want to succeed. To do well. To accomplish your goals. To be recognized for your accomplishments.
If it is natural to want to succeed, then why are we so hard on James and John for asking Jesus to let them be his number one team? Are we denying our human nature if we tell them not to seek greatness? If our response to James and John is tell them to just sit back and be happy to be one of the twelve, then our understanding of Jesus’ gospel is too small.
When Jesus hears their request, he thinks it is a worthwhile idea for them to seek greatness. He encourages them to pursue it. He does check them out, to make sure they know exactly what it is they are seeking. For the kind of greatness Jesus is encouraging them to achieve requires a bold sense of humility. His kind of greatness requires a different way of being in the world. His way involves being servant of all. Of giving your life for the sake of others.
Alfred Adler was one of the fathers of modern psychiatry. Adler believed the desire for recognition, the wish to be significant, is actually stronger than the desire for sexual fulfillment. Adler believes the desire to achieve status is the dominant impulse in human nature. The truth is we all want to do something great, and we want to be recognized for it.
My great uncle Wallace Hamilton was a Methodist preacher in Florida. In one of his sermons, Hamilton describes this desire to be recognized for what we do as being ‘the drum-major instinct’. We want to be the drum-major who leads the parade. Hamilton said it would be a mistake to try and drum that instinct out of us. He said the Gospel shows us how we can learn to ride the wild horses of our untamed instincts.
So when Jesus hears James and John’s request, he doesn’t respond with another chorus of ‘Get thee behind me Satan!” Instead, Jesus says to the sons of Zebedee, “You want to be important. You want to surpass others, and be great among men. All right. You should! To be my disciples you must! But be sure it is a greatness worthy of God. If you would excel, excel in goodness. If you want to be first, be first in moral excellence. Make the strong force of your ambition the servant of God’s high spiritual enterprise.”
In order to have that kind of ambition, we must be boldly humble. To be humble is to be open to God. It is to be rooted in your trust of the Holy Spirit to provide. It is to know that we are not all powerful. We are not in control of everything which happens. We don’t have to have all the answers. As the British playwright George Bernard Shaw put it, “Churches need to practice humility, as well as teach it.” Humility reminds us that we are not called to be God. We are called to humbly follow Christ. We are to boldly go forward, seeking the greatness of spirit, the lofty goals of compassion, and successfully share the gifts we have been blessed with.
To be humble, requires that we have a big heart. We are to be magnanimous. We usually say someone has a big heart when they are a generous giver. To be a generous giver is merely the visible consequence of being magnanimous.
To be magnanimous, to have a big heart, is necessary if we are to first be open to God’s gift of love for us. If we are cold-hearted, if we are closed off, we cannot receive God’s gracious gift of redeeming love which is offered to us in every moment of every day. When we have a big heart, we are able to accept this love, which then in turn creates a space in our hearts to be able to love others in the same way God has loved us.
Churches usually only talk about stewardship when they are trying to get you to donate money to help pay the bills of the institutional church. There is much more to stewardship than just donating money. You’ve been given the gift of God’s grace. You’ve been given the forgiveness of sins. You have also been given the ability to bless, heal and forgive others. You are the steward of these gifts. Financial donations are just a visible example of the many ways you are the steward of God’s redeeming love. All of the gifts you share are important. The gifts of your time, your talents and your tithes make a world of difference in this community of faith we call Dominion-Chalmers United Church, they make a world of difference in this community we call Ottawa, and they make a world of difference for this planet.
We need to be intentional and disciplined in our stewardship. We need to be magnanimous, because when you give much, you receive even more in return. A generous person is able to receive back all of these gifts, without them going to their head. When someone says ‘thank you’ for the kindness you have done them, we are not to take this as a sign of our own greatness. Rather it is a sign of how the love of God has blessed both you and the person you have shared that gift with. When we receive thanks for the gifts we give, we need to humbly acknowledge that the glory belongs to God and not to us. A person with a big heart is capable of returning the thanks to God. A humble person knows we are not diminished by sharing the gift of thanks with God. For it is God who has given us these gifts in the first place. All is to be done for the Glory of God.
About fifteen years after Wallace Hamilton published his “Drum-Major Instinct” sermon, another preacher took that sermon and made it his own. About a month before he died, Martin Luther King delivered his take on the ‘drum-major instinct’.
King’s version made such an impact on the Ebenezer Baptist congregation, that when they conducted King’s funeral, they played the tape of that sermon.
This is how Martin Luther King felt we should be steward of God’s good gifts, and how we can use our drum-major instincts to God’s greater glory.
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 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. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.
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.
J. Wallace Hamilton “Ride the Wild Horses” Fleming Revell, 1952, Abingdon 1980.
Martin Luther King sermon delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, 4 Feb 1968.