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.
But I wonder how many of you, like me, did not know that this quote came from a sermon with the same title as this essay? Yes, MLK was talking about The Drum Major Instinct when he said that.
Yesterday I read the sermon, and I'd like to share some of it with all of you. He gave the sermon on February 4, 1968 at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, exactly 2 months before he was assassinated.
Dr. King starts the sermon by quoting from the New Testament in Mark 10:35 where James and John ask Jesus if they can be seated on his right and left hand in the coming kingdom. Jesus responds by saying:
But whosoever will be great among you, shall be your servant: and whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all.
Dr. King notes that Jesus did not criticize James and John for asking the question, much as most of us would, by suggesting it was selfish or arrogant. Rather, he affirms the desire, but talks about a different way of achieving the goal. Dr. King says:
But before we condemn them too quickly, let us look calmly and honestly at ourselves, and we will discover that we too have those same basic desires for recognition, for importance. That same desire for attention, that same desire to be first. Of course, the other disciples got mad with James and John, and you could understand why, but we must understand that we have some of the same James and John qualities. And there is deep down within all of us an instinct. It's a kind of drum major instinct...And it is something that runs the whole gamut of life.
He goes on to list all the ways this drum major instinct has influenced individuals, organizations and nations in negative ways...it is twisted by marketers to sell us goods; it motivates people to live beyond their means; people distort what they say and who they are to get attention; it leads to exclusivism and racism; and it leads nations on a quest for supremacy and ultimately to war.
Dr. King then returns to how Jesus responded to James and John:
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."
In the end, Dr. King talked about his death (he seemed so prescient about what was coming) and what he would want said at his eulogy:
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. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.
My soul needed to hear these words yesterday. So I thought I'd share them with you on the chance that they might mean as much to you as they did to me.