A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, April 8, 2018, the first Sunday after Easter. Polyphony sermon series. Sunday following the 50th anniversary of MLK’s assassination.
Text: Mark 10:35-45
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” What a pile of hooey. This old saying is just so…untrue. Words can hurt us deeply, leaving wounds much more difficult to heal than even the worst broken bone. As we journey through this Easter season, we’re going to think about some words from the Christian spiritual tradition that have been used in very hurtful ways. We’re calling this series “Polyphony,” a term describing music that includes many parts, voices, or sounds. The words we will explore—abomination, believer, saved, evangelical, born again—are words that get spoken by many different and disparate voices. Our goal is to reclaim some of these words, to listen for the sound the words make when spoken in the context of God’s grace and mercy.
Today we begin with the word “Righteousness.” Growing up as a teenager in the 1980’s I heard the word “righteous” used alongside words like “awesome,” “rad,” “gnarly,” and, I’m slightly ashamed to say this, “tubular.” It generally meant “great” or “neat” or “cool.” But the word “righteousness” in the Christian context has been spoken in ways that are not awesome. Here’s the first definition that popped up in an online search: “Righteousness is the state of moral perfection required by God to enter heaven.” If this is true, we’re all in trouble. That particular site did hasten to add that we are not able to achieve this moral perfection on our own; and then launched into a very legalistic explanation that Jesus’s blood “satisfies God’s justice” by paying the debt for all our sins—like a bloody “get out of jail free” card. I take issue with this theology and, if you are interested in my alternative take, I encourage you to look online at the Good Friday homily I preached last year entitled “Ultimate Witness.” The thing I want to lift up today, however, is the way “righteousness” becomes a tag for the “in” and the “out” crowd the “good” and the “bad” people. If I am righteous, I can judge another for not being righteous. When righteousness is understood as saying certain words or showing up in a certain place at certain times, when righteousness is strict adherence to a list of “do’s and don’ts,” then it is very easy to smoothly slide into self-righteousness.
I submit that righteousness is not about figuring out how to get into the “righteous club,” but rather about faithfully nurturing loving and just relationships that reflect God’s wisdom and way. In the Hebrew scriptures (aka the Old Testament) righteousness is connected to God’s nature and covenant with Israel; in the New Testament, righteousness has to do with the kin-dom of God and life in Christ. Covenant and kin-dom are the ways of living in right relationship with God and with one another. Righteousness is about right relationship.
And that brings me to our text for today. James and John ask to sit at the right hand and the left hand of Jesus in his kingdom. At this point, they don’t understand that Jesus isn’t going to establish the kind of kingdom that the Hebrews had been longing for, an earthly kingdom that would set them free from Roman oppression, that would reestablish the throne of David. They wanted to have cabinet positions in the new administration; after all, they’d earned it, leaving everything to follow Jesus, being devoted and hard-working. Why shouldn’t they sit at his right and left hand in the throne room?
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously preached on this text, pointing out how quickly we might want to condemn James and John for their selfish request but that, if we’re honest, we’ll acknowledge that we have the same basic desire to put ourselves forward so that we can be seen and recognized, so that we can get attention or praise, so that we might feel important. This instinct to be “out front,” to be first, is what King called “The Drum Major Instinct.” You may not want to stand up in front of people to speak or to be in charge of an event or movement or to lead the marching band. But, even for those who are more shy or who like to work behind the scenes, in one way or another, the need for attention and praise and recognition is part of us all. In ways both overt and subtle we try to get the attention that we desire, to put ourselves forward in whatever way we know how to be acknowledged and to feel that we matter.
It is perfectly human to need attention and affirmation, but the drum major instinct can easily become perverted and get in the way of right relationship with God and others. Pitfalls include comparing ourselves to others and being driven to outdo others through our material possessions, through our appearance, through joining this group and that group, through collecting letters after our name or striving to always come in first. A personality distorted by the drum major instinct will begin to boast or may become an “influence peddler,” dropping names and manipulating situations to try to seem more important. King goes on to say, “when one fails to harness this instinct…you engage in some of the most vicious activities. You will spread evil, vicious, lying gossip on people, because you are trying to pull them down in order to push yourself up.”[i]
King also points toward “snobbish exclusivism,” that self-righteous energy that wants to be “in” at the sake of others being “out.” And he calls out the church for the tendency to become focused on the so-called “important people” who attend—the doctors, lawyers, business leaders, presidents, and so on—as if the other folks don’t really count. But he goes on to say, “When the church is true to its nature, it says, ‘Whosoever will, let him come.’ And it does not propose to satisfy the perverted uses of the drum major instinct. It’s the one place where everybody should be the same standing before a common master and savior. And a recognition grows out of this—that all…are [siblings] because they are children of a common [parent].”[ii]
The failure to see this and to embody it in our lives, puts us out of right relationship. This failure opens the door to the destructive tendencies of the drum major instinct, the need to feel superior over others. Dr. King says this “can lead one to feel that because he has some training, he’s a little better than that person that doesn’t have it, or because [she] has some economic security, that [she’s] a little better than the person who doesn’t have it.” And this uncontrolled, perverted use of the drum major instinct also leads to “tragic race prejudice.” King says it “is a need that some people have to feel superior…to feel that they are first, that their white skin ordained them to be first” and that is a perversion of the instinct that leads to the “most tragic expressions of…inhumanity”[iii] toward one another. Perversions of the drum major instinct leads nations to endless war and violence, to selfish and cruel policies against other nations and peoples.
Now considering all of this, you’d think that Jesus would lay James and John out for their selfish request. But he doesn’t do that. Instead, Jesus takes the opportunity to offer a lesson, to help these faithful followers grow up a bit more and learn what it really looks like to be in right relationship. Jesus teaches that the relationship we seek should not be that of ruler, but rather of servant. It is the relationship of kin-ship, of mutuality, of humility. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to abandon the drum major instinct. Here’s how King imagines Jesus responding to the brothers:
“‘Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well you ought to be. If you’re going to be my disciple, you must be.’ But he reordered priorities. And he said, ‘Yes, don’t give up this instinct. It’s a good instinct if you use it right. It’s a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.’”[iv]
Righteousness, right relationship with God and others, is achieved through the grace of God that helps us to understand that we are all kin, all beloved children of a loving God. Righteousness is about relationships marked by humble service, compassion, and love. Righteousness is about relationships that are just—that are not marred by prejudice, greed, ego, and insecurity. This righteousness isn’t something we can achieve without God’s help. It is so easy to slip into destructive attitudes and actions when we feel even the slightest hint of fear or insecurity.
But the heart of the message from our Gospel is that we are all on the same playing field when it comes to greatness in the kin-dom of God—because all that is required of us is a loving, servant heart that seeks to embrace each and every other as kin. That’s the long and short of it. Anyone can serve. Everyone can serve. Some will choose not to, but the door is open to all. The kin-dom’s message is “whosoever will, let them come.”
It has been intentional to lift up some of the teaching and insight of Dr. King on this Sunday following our remembrances and recommitment to the work he championed for racial and social justice and for an expression of the Christian gospel that truly has integrity. And, as a closing for this reflection, I’ll share some of the final words from his sermon:
“Every now and then I guess we all think realistically about that day when we will be victimized with what is life’s final common denominator—that something we call death…Every now and then I ask myself, ‘What is it that I would want said?’ And I leave the word to you…
If any of you are around when I have to meet my day…I’d like somebody to mention…that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others…tried to love somebody… tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try, in my life, to clothe those who were naked…to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. Yes, 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…Yes, Jesus, I want to be on your right side or your left side, not for any selfish reason. I want to be on your right or your best side, not in terms of some political kingdom or ambition, but 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.”[v]
[i] Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Drum Major Instinct,” A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington (New York: HarperOne, 1986), 262.
[ii] Ibid., 263.
[iv] Ibid., 265.
[v] Ibid., 267.