When You Want Your Life to Mean Something (Dr King’s Last Sermon)

Dr. Martin Luther King., with son Dexter, Atlanta, 1964
“… 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.

…By giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody 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 about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity 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, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant…” Martin Luther King, Jr., “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, 1968

This weekend I’ll watch King’s “I Have a Dream” until tears spill from my eyes. It happens almost every year.

There are his speaking skills and his commitment to nudge the world and his ability to get off his couch and do something. Justice and equity. Truth. I’ll celebrate progress with you, and I’ll weep with you, too, over how far we have to go.

We want to advocate and uncover and impact our generation just like King, right? We want our lives to matter, too. But this man’s identity was grounded in something deeper than being a change-agent. King embraced the messiness of being like his Redeemer. He focused his gaze on the Servant King who descended into the fragments, stripped Himself of glory, and started washing feet. 

While shouting equity he challenged his followers to whisper humility. So counter-cultural that Martin was… more counter-cultural than I ever realized.

While thousands were holding out their hands in hope, King challenged them to look beyond their oppression and bravely study their own hearts… is it even possible? This last sermon he preached would have touched us today because we all have an insatiable desire to be important. We all crave significance.

King dared them to live their lives differently. Can you abandon living beyond your means? he asked. Can you stop name-dropping? Can you resist the need to be known, the need so powerful it can change your personality? Yeah, he hit the big ones.

He must not have been a people-pleaser.

The ache is still here in the 21st century – the ache to be known and valued and recognized. I stand here today wondering how to navigate it all — making a difference, generating awareness, drawing attention, self-promotion. I’ve been on that downward spiral. Maybe you have, too.

Brokenness weaves the lie into our lives, distorting our definitions of greatness. Take it back, King shouts. Take back the God-given hunger to be great by loving others more than yourself. Be radical by humbling yourself. Do something with that drive that has nothing to do with yourself.

And I wonder about all the pages of King’s story we’ll never know… the chapters read only by his close friends and family before the world knew his name. I see him maybe changing his kids’ diapers… or frantically helping his wife tidy their home before guests arrived… or pushing a neighbor kid on the swing. Busy man he was. I can imagine most of his down time was ordinary just like mine. Or was it?

5 thoughts on “When You Want Your Life to Mean Something (Dr King’s Last Sermon)

  1. This is so moving and beautiful. This line is for my journal – to revisit over and over: “While shouting equality he challenged his followers to whisper humility. ” And while I’m always inspired by Dr. King… I’m also inspired by your heart. Thank you for sharing it here.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A lovely tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. The drum major sermon is one of my favorites. In the 1990s I listened to it on a record I checked out from our seminary library. One sermon on each side by MLK. Both were excellent. But this is the one that stuck in my memory. It catches the spirit of his vision as well as the heart of the Gospel–seen in Jesus’ life. Very challenging post. Thanks, Christan.
    Elouise

    Like

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