Message 133, “The Gathering at a Crossroads: What Does It Mean to Serve?”, 6-16-13foot washing

(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved


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There are many famous speeches given by Martin Luther King, Jr.  One that stands out is a sermon given near the end of his life entitled “The Drum Major”.  In it, King used as the illustration for his message an episode described in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus is talking with his disciples.  Two of them, John and James, get into a debate over which of them would sit at Jesus’ right hand once he became King.

The book of Mark is often considered the most accurate of the four Gospels.  It was the first and earliest to be written, there is no narrative of the miraculous virgin birth and a vital portion of the last chapter, number 16, detailing Jesus’ bodily resurrection, is widely considered by almost all scholars to have been appended to the text many years after the original.  Such a fact calls into question the veracity of the resurrection but it also highlights the probable truth of the rest of Mark.

The account of James and John arguing over who would be the right hand man to Jesus is therefore likely to be a true story.  They were not debating over who would sit next to Jesus in heaven but rather who would would be his most trusted adviser when he became King of the Jews – a David like figure that many followers of Jesus hoped he would become.  Indeed, few contemporaries of Jesus saw him as a supernatural Messiah.  He was instead the hoped for great leader who would rally Jews to defeat the Romans and re-establish the powerful nation of Israel.

As King told this story in his 1968 sermon, the disciples of Jesus did not get it.  They were as blind as many people were to the essential message and purpose of Jesus.  As Jesus himself said, he acted as a teacher and rabbi not to be waited on, and fawned over, and treated like an indulgent celebrity, but instead to serve others and to be an example of the true heart of God.  Indeed, in the Bible story recounted by Martin Luther King, Jesus tells his disciples that his mission was not to be an earthly King with great power.  Rather, he envisioned a more transcendent Kingdom – a Kingdom of the heart where ethics of compassionate service, humility and forgiveness ruled the day instead of religious hypocrisy and false piety.  No matter who would sit at his right hand and thus enjoy that dubious status, Jesus pointedly reminded his followers, and Martin Luther King was implicitly saying the same to his followers, that the greatest of people are not Princes, Army Generals or muti-millionaires, they are lowly servants.  Those who are great, serve others.  Those who are great, are humble.  Those who are great, put others first.  Those who are great empower not themselves, but other people.

King implored his listeners at the Ebeneezer Baptist Church to work against the all too human impulse to be a drum major.  All people, he said, crave attention, praise, power and status.  We seek such things, he said, in the cars we drive, the houses we live in, and the ways we treat other people.  Racism is the result of the drum major syndrome, he said.   One group of people seeks to assert itself and act superior to others based on skin color.  War is also the result of the drum major syndrome as nations brutally seek domination over weaker ones.  King pointed to the example of America’s war in Viet Nam as our own national drum major attitude of arrogance.  Great people seek not to be the first among races or the first among nations.  They seek to be first in love.  First in generosity.  First in serving others.

I find it fascinating that one great prophet of history, Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about the example of another great prophet – Jesus.  Both led non-violent movements against the oppressors of their day while calling people to radical compassion, humility, gentleness and the moral standard of decency and justice for all people.  Both died for the sake of their cause.

King looked not only to Jesus as an example but also to Mohandas Gandhi – another prophet for the ages.   Gandhi was born with a servant’s heart.  His passion in life was to serve the poor by teaching them the means to self-sufficiency.  When granted great power because of his large following, he gave it up to others – preferring to cede the limelight and instead lead a life of profound simplicity.  All three men – Jesus, Gandhi, and King – rose to historic greatness not because of their strength, their cunning or their physical power, but because they nurtured and empowered other people.  They were classic servant leaders.  Jesus washed the feet of his followers, Gandhi offered his life as an example of how to live simply and justly, King surrounded himself with other intelligent people to whom he gave power and responsibility so that the Civil Rights movement would endure without him.  As much as they taught about the ethic of serving others, they lived it out.

Indeed, looking at all of the prophets depicted in the painting behind me, they each have one thing in common.  They were first and foremost servants.  As Martin Luther King said in his “Drum Major” sermon,Everybody can be great.  Because anybody 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 the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve.  You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.”

As we reflect on our ten year birthday as a congregation this month, we have rightly acknowledged our primary purpose and reason for existence is to seek inner growth in ourselves so we can go out and serve others.  Our ultimate reason for existence is not to sit here and enjoy our cozy club of friends, it is to serve.  Many of you, during our discussion time after last week’s message on what it means to grow, suggested new ways we can serve others.  I applaud those thoughts as I am heartened by this congregation’s hunger to serve.

In order to serve others, my message last week on the importance of growth and my message this week on the importance of service to others, are intrinsically tied together.  We cannot continue to serve others unless we grow.  We cannot grow unless we each serve.  While it is comfortable to remain who, what and where we are today, that is not and never has been our purpose.   As much as it would be easy for me to find comfort in our status quo and simply coast along, I am not satisfied with where we are today.  I hope none of you are either.  We are a progressive church.  We have so much more to do and so many more places to go.

Jesus did not tell his twelve disciples to join him in a small club and retreat from the world.  He expanded his following to include and serve women, the disabled, non-Jews and many others.  Thousands eventually followed him.  Gandhi was not content to practice non-violence and simplicity on his small ashram farm in South Africa.  He moved back to India precisely to expand the number of people he could reach by empowering them to self-sufficiency while demanding their rights.  Martin Luther King did not limit his protest march to Birmingham or his bus boycott to Selma.  He empowered our entire nation to enter an era of greater justice.  This congregation was not content, at its beginning, to closet itself in a small huddle around its rejected leader.  It incorporated itself as a church, opened itself to the wider community and moved to a new space that brought many new members – myself included.  Such acts were undertaken as a mission to serve as many people as possible.  We must never forget that mission.

All servant prophets have a moral vision.   They refuse to retreat to the comfort of their small clan.  They are not visionaries of growth as a means to power, prestige and wealth.  They are visionaries of growth in order to serve – to expand their compassion and their moral ethics of justice to as many people as possible……..precisely because they are SERVANTS.  As Martin Luther King said in another speech of his, “Life’s most urgent and persistent question is: what are you doing for others?”

As the Gathering embarks on its next decade, we must emerge from a decade of formation into a teenage time of growth in wisdom, maturity and greater service.  Our mission to be a progressive servant leader in this community calls us to actually get out there and serve – to be the hands and feet of compassion to homeless and impoverished youth.

To be a servant leader in our community, our call is to remain humble in who and what we are.  Our vision is not to seek beautiful and elaborate buildings or large, applauding crowds of people.  We know our limits while also acknowledging we have wisdom and insight.  We have a progressive, non-religious message of spirituality that is important in a world where fundamentalism hurts so many.  Our call is to humbly offer our message to as many people as possible.

We will be servant leaders by living true to our ideals.  By understanding that ethics like forgiveness and non-violence are essential qualities in any human, our work is to practice them toward one another and toward the wider world.  This involves listening to other opinions, refusing to engage in angry or hate filled speech and remaining respectful of all opinions – political, faith based or otherwise.  As individuals and as a congregation, we will act and speak with peace.  We will model to others, as a means to serve them, the way of tolerance, respect and peace – even for those with whom we disagree.

We will be servant leaders through collaboration between ourselves and with other people and organizations in the community.  Far from believing we have all the answers or all knowledge, our goal is to work with others in ways that leverage the abilities of many.  We will hlep empower others to find meaning and purpose in life by serving and coordinating outreach to the poor, hungry and homeless.  We will empower people in ways to facilitate, lead, innovate and create.  We will help empower homeless children and youth in our community to break the cycle of poverty – to learn, work, grow and achieve self-sufficiency.

We will be servant leaders by our celebration of all people.  We will embrace diversity as a way to serve a community of many cultures, races and sexualities.  We will serve our world by welcoming the unique contributions and differences of any and all people.

Finally, we will be servant leaders by our emphasis on the spiritual nature of servitude.  We are all interconnected in the grand design of life.  What affects others, affects us too.  We serve not just to benefit one child or even a few.  We serve to touch the future of all life – us, our children, the strangers outside these doors.

The topic of this message asks what does it mean to serve?  For any of us, serving defines our very reason for existence.  Church is not a social club that offers a brief but nice Sunday interlude.  From the simple to the extraordinary, we touch other lives.  From making a pot of coffee, to holding the hand of one who is sick, to greeting another with a smile, to cleaning a bathroom, to feeding the homeless, to offering soothing music, we sublimate our needs, our wants, our comfort for the sake of another.  We sacrifice.  We give.  That’s our calling.  That’s our duty.  That is the only way we will survive and the only way we will grow.

Only thirty-four days before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “Drum Major” sermon.  At its close, he spoke poignantly of what he wanted said at his funeral.  He did not want to be known as a Nobel Peace Prize winner.  He did not want to be known as a leader of a movement.  He did not want to be known as a speaker or a drum major of anything.  He wanted it simply said that he fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the imprisoned, and cared for all humanity.  He wanted it known that he was first and foremost a servant.

My friends, let that be said of any one of us.  That we were a servant.  That we served above and beyond ourselves.  That we served with our love, our humility, our generosity, and our passion to learn and grow so we can serve even more.  For each of us, and especially for this place called the Gathering, we live to serve……………….and we serve to live.

I wish you all much peace and joy.