I have always believed the Sunday of The Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday weekend was a special day for the church. It is not on the liturgical calendar, although with our themes of Israel's call and the Beatitudes from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, it would seem to fit. On this day, I have always lifted-up and celebrated Dr. King as a pastor, preacher, and prophet. I have always sought to call people of Christian faith to moral action based on a faith-conscience which held justice and peace at the heart of that action. I have often said, if you don't want to hear about justice, peace, and nonviolence on this day, don't come to worship.
Today, I begin at end of Dr. King's life. I turn back to one of Dr. King's final sermons, "The Drum Major Instinct" delivered and recorded two months to the day before his assassination as he preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
Let us go to Ebenezer . . .
Let us pray . . . May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
On Sunday, February 4, 1968, exactly two months to the day before his was assassinated, Dr. King preached a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church entitled, "The Drum Major Instinct." "The Drum Major Instinct is one which we all have," said Dr. King. It is the instinct to surpass others, to achieve distinction, or to lead the band. The great psychologist, Alfred Adler, called this the dominant impulse. Moving past Freud's idea that sex was the dominant impulse, Adler believed that this quest for recognition, this desire for attention, the desire for distinction is the basic impulse, the drum major instinct (Quoted in A Testament of Hope, edited by James M. Washington, Harper and Row, San Francisco, CA, 1986, pp.260-261).
People of all ages live out the "drum major instinct" all the time. We compare clothes, cars, houses, schools, and even churches. Churches do it. We say, we have so many doctors, professors, teachers, lawyers, business leaders and so on. In the United Church of Christ, our church profile does it. When you send out your information to candidates, you have to record the "education level" and "professional level" of your church. The drum major instinct. According to Jesus, the church is the place where a doctor ought to forget that he's a doctor and a Ph.D. ought to forget that she is a Ph.D. A school teacher ought to forget her degree and a lawyer ought to forget that he's a lawyer. (Reference, Washington, p.263). For you see, the drum major instinct will lead you to exclusivism and exclusivism to death.
Dr. King went on to speak about the economic, political, and military drive to live out the "drum major instinct" on a nation-state basis. The ultimate definition perversion of this quest is war, which he called, "A bitter, colossal contest for supremacy." Nations embroiled in "the drum major instinct" say, "We must be first," "We must be supreme," "our nation must rule the world." He continued, "I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit." Then in a tone both defiant and weary, King quickly added, "I am going to continue to say it to America, because I love this country too much to see the drift it has taken."
Dr. King then turned to talk about one man - a man who was the antithesis of the drum major instinct. "This man just went about serving. He was born in an obscure village, child of a poor peasant woman, grew up in another obscure village, worked as a carpenter until he was 30 years old. For three years he was an itinerant preacher. He didn't have much. He never wrote a book. He never had a title. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never owned a house. He never went to college. (Until the end), he never visited a big city. He never went more than 200 miles from where he was born. He did none of the usual things that the world associates with greatness. He had no credentials but himself" (Ibid.p. 266). Dr. King continued, "He was 33 when the tide of public opinion turned against him. They called him a rabble rouser. They called him a troublemaker. They said he was an agitator. He practiced civil disobedience and broke injunctions. And so he was turned over to his enemies, and went through a the mockery of a trial. And the irony of it all is that his friends turned him over to them. One of his closest friends denied him . . . And while he was dying the people who killed him gambled for his clothing, the only possessions he had in this world. When he was dead, he was buried in a borrowed tomb, through the pity of a friend."
"Nineteen (and a half) centuries have come and gone and today he stands as the most influential figure that ever entered human history. All the enemies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned put together have not affected humanity as much as this one man . . . He is called "king of Kings," and "Lord of Lords." Somebody somewhere is singing today, `In Christ there is no east or west . . . in him no north and no south, just one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.' He didn't have anything. He just went about serving and doing good." (Ibid.).
At the end of the sermon, Dr. King delivered haunting words that would be broadcast at his funeral, April 9th, 1968. He spoke of his own death and his own funeral - not in a morbid sense, but in terms of what he would like said about his life. He did not wish for a long funeral. The eulogist should keep his words brief. He implored his eulogist not to mention his Nobel Peace Prize, the several hundred awards he had won, or where he attended school. He wanted the focus to be on his life's deeper ambitions and higher achievements. He wanted the eulogist to say he tried to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned and love and serve humanity. He wanted his eulogy to say he tried to give his life to serving others and that he tried to love somebody.
He went on, "If you want to say 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 . . . I just want to leave a committed life behind." Finally, speaking about the war in Vietnam once more, he begged his eulogist to say, "I tried to be right on the war question." (Ibid, p. 267).
Another prophet, the biblical prophet, Jeremiah, cried out to his people who also possessed the drum major instinct in their day. Speaking with the words of God on his lips, he cried out:
Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches, but let him who glories glory in this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice and righteousness in the earth: for in these things I delight, says the Lord. (Jeremiah 9:23-24).
In the text from Jeremiah, wisdom, might, and riches are set in clear opposition to love, justice, and righteousness. This juxtaposition sets a biblical tension for us which cannot be easily explained away. The prophet knows we are inclined to boast of our wisdom, our might, and our riches. We do so either by talking about them or showing off because we have them. In this, they become dangerous and not the sign of success. As King says, we give in to our drum major instinct, in so doing. The word "glory" translates from the Hebrew as "boasting." But, the only boasting we are to do is in the Lord, our God.
Today, between Jeremiah's prophecy, and the sermons of King from Ebenezer Baptist, Atlanta and Jesus from the Mount near Capernaum in Galilee, I must say, that I feel deep grief for our nation. I am sad that we have succumbed to the drum major instinct - especially that instinct as it is lived out in this war.
There is in the prophet's call a moral mismatch. Wisdom, power, and riches out of sync with love, justice, and righteousness. In his April 4, 1967 speech entitled, "A Time to Break Silence," Dr. King pointed out that he was joining the small, but growing chorus of opposition to war, in part, to add his voice to saving the soul of America. He saw a growing war which was claiming the lives of the poor in Southeast Asia - both indigenous people and American soldiers - and whose effect at home was to strip resources from the needs of the poor here.
Several years ago, just before the war in Iraq commenced firing, I heard Senator Joseph Biden speak out on the floor of Congress saying that if we attacked Iraq it would come with a great cost. He said the daily cost of waging such a war would be in the billions of dollars. Those dollars could come out of thin air - especially in the devastated economy in which we were in. Those dollars would have to come out of social welfare programs, medicare and medicaid, social security payments, schools, and other federal programs. With no reserves in our government upon which to draw for this fight, it would be the children and our society's most vulnerable who would pay for this war now and will well into the future. Senator Biden was right. In June 2004, in a joint report published by The Institute for Policy Studies and Foreign Policy in Focus, the cost of this war (at that time) was calculated to be $3,400/household for every American family (The Guardian, Friday, June 25, 2004, p. 14). Yet, I hear few voices in Congress today questioning this war with any consistency and effectiveness.
On no other moral ground than the ground of love, justice and righteousness for the poorest of the poor and for our oldest and youngest citizens, we have to bring our men and women home.
Beyond the cost of war in dollars, there is the human cost - tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians and insurgents. Well over 1,000 American soldiers, several hundred more coalition troops, another 300+ civilian workers killed. With elections looming in a few weeks, we can only hope that new found democracy will mean the foundation for our withdrawal of troops and the establishment of Iraqi leadership for a free and democratic future.
In today's reading from Matthew, Jesus says, "Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they will be called Children of God." Children of God. I pray that in the eulogy delivered for each of our funerals, it will be said of us that we sought to bring righteousness, justice and peace to this world. I hope it will be said of us, that we lived into our calling a peacemaking children of God.
In September, I was visited the Lorraine Hotel where, late on the afternoon of Good Friday, April 4th, 1968, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down with a single rifle shot to the head. Just moments before he died, Martin leaned over the balcony and called down to singer, Ben Branch in the parking lot below. He said, "Ben, make sure you play `Precious Lord, Take my Hand' at the meeting (tonight)." "I will," replied Ben. "Play it real pretty," Martin responded, "for me." With that, a shot was fired. Our drum major for peace, justice, and righteousness was taken from us. Thanks be to God for Martin Luther King, Jr. Amen.