Today we remember the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was born January 15, 1929. Had he lived a full and long life, one not cut short by an assassins bullet, he would have turned 81 this past Friday. He should still be with us, offering us prophetic words that would challenge our comfort zones, not just about race, but poverty and militarism as well. Instead, we must remember him as he was, just a young man, not yet 40, speaking truth to power. Like another young man, who also died short of his 40th birthday -- Dietrich Bonhoeffer -- Dr. King pushed our nation in directions it had long resisted. He did so, with a vision that was nonviolent but relentless. It is also true that the presence of more radical actors, such as Malcom X, helped many whites see that rather than being a radical, Dr. King's vision was one they could receive.
Of course, there are still those who would not receive his message. There are still those who wish to divide and conquer, to suggest that there are "true Americans" or that we must rescue America. Indeed, if we are honest, we all have at least a hint of ethnocentrism, believing that our way is the right way, our people the best people.
Let us then stop today, and reflect on a man who spoke truth to power and yet struggled with his own demons. He understood that the way of Jesus was one of service and he was willing to lay his life on the life, but as he noted in his sermon "The Drum Major's Instinct," we all have a desire for and a need for recognition. The sermon reflects on the text from Mark 10, where James and John ask for seats of power. Dr. King, I believe, understood -- as all preachers should -- that we all have a drum major's instinct -- a desire to lead the band -- to be considered persons of importance. As one reads or listens to the sermon, one understands that Dr. King would have struggled with this very day that honors his memory. He understood that the gospel called us all to lives of service.
As Dr. King preached that day in February 1968, he interpreted Jesus saying to James and John -- it's okay to want to be first, just remember what you are called to be first in. As he preached, he reminded us that Jesus turns things upside down. It's a good message for us as individuals, as churches, and as nations. King spoke:
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. (Amen) That's a new definition of greatness.
And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, (Everybody) because everybody can serve. (Amen) You don't have to have a college degree to serve. (All right) 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. (Amen) You only need a heart full of grace, (Yes, sir, Amen) a soul generated by love. (Yes) And you can be that servant.
May we remember today a great man who understood that greatness was expressed in service to others. Yes, I'm sure he struggled with ego and pride. Yes, he had his vanity and vices. That is true of us all, but he understood the call and he lived the call -- imperfectly yes, but willingly as well. May his vision of love be with us today.