Text: Mark 10: 35-45 (the greatness of service)
February has been a busy month for televised sports. It began with curling at the Tournament of Hearts, and it includes the Winter Olympics, which closed yesterday in South Korea. In-between was the Super Bowl, which is the most popular televised event in the United States and Canada.
I enjoyed this year’s Super Bowl. It was high-scoring ; the underdog won; and, as usual, I was entertained by the commercials. Many of them used humour. Others appealed for unity in the face of today’s sharp social divisions.
One of the latter immediately caught my attention. It began with titles saying it was an audio recording of a sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fifty years ago to the day, on February 4, 1968. This was just two months before Dr. King’s assassination.
As a video montage of first responders, teachers, and workers unspooled, we heard King’s marvelous baritone say: “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 . . . [It] means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to [know a lot to serve] . . . You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”
After King stopped speaking, the grill of a Dodge Ram truck filled the screen followed by the truck’s slogan, “Built to Serve!”
It is not often that America’s current favourite Sunday pastime, NFL football, is interrupted by America’s former favourite Sunday pastime, a sermon; and this particular attempt did not go over well. Dodge was roundly condemned for using King’s sermon to sell trucks especially because this one condemned commercialism in general and advertising for cars in particular.
King’s sermon also condemned the War in Vietnam. In it he said, “we Americans are criminals in that war. In fact, we’ve committed more war crimes than almost any nation in the world.” This part of his sermon, also unheard in the TV ad, adds a further irony to Dodge’s use of it in a broadcast of the final event of the National Football League’s season because this year America’s flag and national anthem have been a flashpoint between a militarist U.S. President and football players who protest racism. But I’ll leave that one aside for today.
Today, I begin with the ad for Dodge Ram because King’s sermon — known as “The Drum Major Instinct” because of a repeated metaphor he uses in it — was a reflection on the same reading that we heard this morning from the 10th chapter of the Gospel of Mark.
In the reading, Jesus tells his friends about his impending death for a third and final time during their journey to Jerusalem. Despite this being the third time, James and John still don’t get it. They ask Jesus to let them sit at his right and left-hand when he comes into his glory.
Jesus says that they will drink from the same cup and undergo the same baptism as him meaning they too will face painful death and joyous resurrection. But as for greatness, Jesus says that in his eyes greatness comes from service and that to rank first means serving the needs of all.
Jesus’ message is countercultural. In God’s realm, he says, to try to save one’s life is to lose it. In God’s realm, the first will be last and the last will be first. In God’s realm, greatness comes not from dominating others but from serving them.
Whatever one makes of Jesus’ words, they surely do not endorse the Dodge Ram! Nor does King’s sermon suggest that serving others is about buying the right truck; and so Dodge deserves all the scorn this ad received . . . although there is a cynical part of me that wonders if Dodge knew the ad would spark outrage. For instance, I have never mentioned a brand of truck in a sermon before! Perhaps Dodge is relying on the saying that there no such thing as bad publicity. Perhaps.
Regardless, this month’s sports events provide a backdrop for us to reflect on glory and what is most important in life.
Sports competitions like the Super Bowl and the Olympics offer stunning displays of superhuman achievement. To watch an athlete land six quadruple jumps in a five minute skating routine, or to ski down a mountain course at 140 km an hour, or to catch a football while running 35 km per hour and being shadowed by a huge opponent who is waiting to pounce on you with crushing force as soon as you touch the ball can take our breath away, even as they might give also us pause as to the risks such superhuman feats pose for athletes.
Partisanship adds to the pleasure we gain from watching sports. During the Super Bowl, I was mildly cheering for Philadelphia over New England. But if it had been Edmonton versus Ottawa, I would have been more engaged.
The same thing happens with the Olympics. While I admire watching Russian or American skaters dazzle with artistic and athletic prowess, I love the achievements of Canadian skaters even more simply because we live in the same country.
Competition between teams and countries provides much of the motivation for the athletes. It is hard to imagine anyone hurtling themselves down a mountain at literal break-neck speed without the tremendous rewards we give to those who manage to win without killing themselves in the attempt.
Unlike in the realm of God, in the Olympics, the first are first, the last are to be pitied, and those who place fourth just off the medal podium might be pitied even more.
But of course, the Olympics don’t pretend to be the realm of God, unlike the ad for the Dodge Ram. And that is OK, I guess.
Still, I do wish more of life were in synch with the message of Jesus and Dr. King. King notes that all of us want to win praise, recognition, and fame. He does not downplay that impulse, which he calls the drum major instinct. Instead, he prays that as we mature we learn to satisfy this impulse through loving service to others. We can all be great he says. All we need is a heart full of grace and love.
This echoes the call of Jesus to James, John and us. In family, neighbourhood and church we respond to a call to ministry not to gain brownie points in some sort of heavenly reward book, but because we experience deep joy when we glimpse that our egos and their desires are illusions and that our true reality is found in community and in caring for other people.
I love spectacular human achievement, whether in art, science, or sport, and I marvel at the level of excellence some people achieve under the spur of competition and the quest for glory.
But even more than that, I love moments of self-emptying when one finds oneself awake to the flow of Spirit and to God’s eternity in simple acts of service to family and neighbour.
Today , I close with words that King used in his sermon 50 years ago this February, just two months before his death.
King said: “Every now and then we all think about that day when we will be victimized with what is life’s final common denominator — that something we call death. And every now and then I think about my own death and my own funeral. I don’t think of it in a morbid sense. But every now and then I ask myself, ‘What is it that I would want said?’
If you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize — that isn’t important . . .
That day, I’d like somebody to mention 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 tried to feed the hungry,
to clothe the naked; and to visit those in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
If you mention that I was a drum major, say I was a drum major for justice; for peace; and for righteousness. All the other 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. In the words of a song . . .
If I can help somebody as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody with a word or song,
If I can show somebody he’s traveling wrong,
Then my living will not be in vain.
If I can do my duty as a Christian ought,
If I can bring salvation to a world once wrought,
If I can spread the message as the Master taught,
Then my living will not be in vain.”
“Yes, Jesus,” King concludes, “I want to be on your right or your left side not for any selfish reason. I want this not in terms of political ambition. I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others so that we can make of this old world a new world.”