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The Only Definition of Greatness

Welcome to the Sanchez family and all of their guests here this morning! We love baptisms in this church. We had one last week and will have another in two weeks, on November 4. Baptism is a public sacrament in our tradition. Meaning that, with rare exceptions, it should always take place in a service with the larger community present. This whole roomful of people is about to say that they will support this little boy in his life in Christ. And I know in this church people take that vow seriously. We really raise each others’ kids. And we will do no less for little Emiliano whom we baptize today.

We’ve read in recent months quite a few Gospel passages where Jesus tells his disciples to be like little children. Yet there are times when you think that what the disciples really need to hear is to grow up and be less like children. Today’s reading is one of those.

James and John and the other disciples are walking along with Jesus, nearing Jerusalem. (In these final weeks of Pentecost we get right up to the point where they enter the city, only to pick back up there in Lent). James and John, two of those closest to Jesus tell him, “Master, we want you to do for us anything we ask!”

Jesus, as ever remarkably patient with them, asks what it is they want him to do. Any of us might find the very question so ridiculous as to be not worth entertaining, but Jesus is curious. What they want is to sit in the positions of highest importance, one at his right hand, and one at his left, when he comes into his glory. In Matthew’s Gospel, that request gets put into the mouth of James and John’s mother. She asks Jesus for her sons to be put in these positions of authority. At least here they’re made to own up to their wish for power.

Jesus then says You do not know what you’re asking. Are you able to drink the cup from which I am about to drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I am about to be baptized? Yes! They reply eagerly. Again, another childish moment, agreeing to something before you know exactly what’s being asked. I think my mother told me never to do that well before I was the age of these men. The cup Jesus will drink from is a cup of suffering, an allusion to Gethsemane. The baptism is an allusion to his death. Likewise, James (this isn’t our James by the way. It’s James the Greater) will be martyred and John sent into exile on a remote island. Little do they know that they will share this cup and this baptism one day.

Three months before his death, Martin Luther King Jr wrote a sermon on this Gospel reading, delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, his own congregation. It was titled “The Drum Major Instinct.” You can read or (better) listen to it online.

A Drum Major is the person who leads a marching band, out front. You can picture them in those fluffy tall hats, red jackets, brass buttons and baton. There must be a better contemporary example of the person who likes to be out in front of the crowd, firing them up. In any case, the metaphor may not be so current, but the idea, unchanged, and unchanging. A drum major is someone like James and John who wants to be first, the most important, the most noticed.

The Drum Major Instinct starts right when we’re born. We cry to get attention. When our mothers leave the room for just a moment, we grow incensed. I don’t know if I’d be as hard on babies as Dr. King is. But I have had two of them and I must admit they can be rather self centered, especially at about 2 in the morning.

We become children and carry that instinct right along with us. We want the most toys, to be in the front of the line, to win the game, to get that award to bring home and show off.

We grow older and we take this instinct to our relationships, to our workplaces, everywhere we go. Even church. Even here we look around, size ourselves up, take sides. Or maybe this happens church-to-church. Yes, that church down the street has more members than we do, but we’re Episcopalians. George Washington was an Episcopalian. More presidents have been Episcopalian than any other denomination (so there!). Or, maybe, we have this nice new organ and they don’t. Our building is oldest. General Popham is buried here! (You can tell I never think this way!)

Where else, how else do we exercise the Drum Major instinct? We use the color of our skin. Dr. King knew all about that. How people with almost nothing else to boast could still use something as contingent as the color of their skin to put themselves in front of others. We use the language we speak. We use gender. We use our political parties–we really use our political parties. And views. We’re smarter than them, we liberals, we conservatives.

Nations have the drum major instinct. Thank God we’re not as backward as they are. Thank God our politicians aren’t as disgusting, our system as broken, as theirs (that’s what my friends in Canada say). Towns, too. A rabbi friend from Larchmont told me that some of his neighbors don’t think very highly of us over here. Every now and again he’ll hear someone say, “Well at least we’re not Scarsdale, you know.”

No, absolutely no one, is spared. And King is right. In ways big and small, all day, every day, we exercise that drum major instinct. From the time we’re born up to the very end.

But then Dr. King says, If that impulse is so strong, so strong as to be almost impossible to fight, then Why not turn it around and use it for good? Maybe we can’t get rid of it. But we can use it to make ourselves and our world better. And here I’m quoting from the end of his sermon:

[Jesus] … said in substance, “Oh, I see, […] you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you’re going to be my disciple, you must be.” 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.

And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important–wonderful. If you want to be recognized–wonderful. If you want to be great–wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.

For us Christians–in Jesus’ time, in King’s time, and in ours today, it is The Only definition of greatness, from the moment we’re baptized until the moment we die. May we be as proud and as foolish as James and John. But following Christ’s admonition, may the glory we seek be in humble service to others. Amen.