Monday, January 21, 2013

The Drum Major

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

            On a shelf in my office, there is an award that is very special to me.  It is an award given by Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, MO called "The Drum Major for Justice Award."  It is given annually on the weekend of the MLK, Jr. holiday to a member of the St. Joseph community who has worked for the biblical understanding of justice as practiced by MLK, Jr.  I was deeply humbled to get the award a year ago for my work as a minister in the community-a minister at a church who stood with me working on justice for immigrants, ethnic minorities, low-income people and LGBT people.  The award belonged to First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ as much as it did to me.  I got to keep the award, however, and I'm proud my name is on it.
            The award means so much to me for many reasons, but perhaps the greatest is due to its name.  "The Drum Major for Justice" comes from one of King's sermons titled "The Drum Major Instinct."  It isn't  as widely read as some of his other sermons, but I believe it is my favorite.  In it, King speaks about the human desire to be out front leading the band and getting the attention and honor.  Yet, he preached, we are taught by Jesus that the first shall be last and the last shall be first and the greatest must be the servant of all.  If we are truly to change our world so that it adheres to God's justice, then we all must be willing to set aside our desire to gather honor and glory to ourselves and serve others.
            You may recall that there was a controversy when the MLK, Jr. Memorial was unveiled in Washington, D.C. due to one of the quotations attributed to King engraved into the monument's stone surface.  What was printed on the monument was actually a paraphrase from "The Drum Major Instinct."   The inscription read: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness."   Yet in its original context, MLK, Jr. speaks about how all his awards do not matter-including his Nobel Peace Prize-and at his death he did not want to praised for his earthly accomplishments.  Here is an excerpt:

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. (Yes) 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 that I have three or four hundred other awards-that's not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. (Yes)
I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. (Yes)
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. (Amen)
I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. (Yes)
And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. (Yes)
I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. (Lord)
I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. (Yes)
He then says, "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."  

As Maya Angelou noted, leaving out the "if" changes the point of the words.

The reason the award in my office is important to me is that it reminds me that ultimately acclamations do not matter.  The award that matters most is the one we receive in the hereafter when our Creator says to us, "Well done, good and faithful servant" on account of what we have done for others. 

Grace and Peace,


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