The Drum Major Instinct

January 12, 2020

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Preached by Canon Andy Trenier at Choral Evensong on Sunday 12th January 2020, The Baptism of Christ.

Sadly we don’t remember Martin Luther King in our Anglican calendar but this neglected saint does have his own day in the states next week.

You perhaps have seen on TV the old black and white footage of the civil rights marches in the sixties.

You may have even seen Martin Luther King- at the front receiving his share of stinging high-pressured water hoses.

King was a great proponent of full-immersion baptism – and though baptism by water canon is not the usual practice-

it is by no means unusual in the church for people to be fully immersed.

Many more people, of course, get baptised with a pouring of water upon the head from a font such as the one out there in the Nave.

I’m not going to launch the campaign for water canon baptism this evening, but – as a practice- it would make the association

that is implied in the first lesson, (and is explicitly remembered in the Prayer over the Water at Baptism), a little easier to pick up.

Through water you led the children of Israel

from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.

In water your Son Jesus received the baptism of John

and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ,

to lead us from the death of sin to newness of life.

King often remarked that he and the other marchers had a common strength

which is worth remembering

as we celebrate this evensong on the baptism of Christ


“As we went before the fire hoses”, he used to say

“we were living out our baptism vows…

At- however you were baptised the first time,

at the end of those marches we had all been fully immersed”. 

You certainly won’t have seen the footage of another incident in King’s life, which happened in Ebenezer Baptist Church on the 3rd April 1968.

He was giving the sermon to just a couple of thousand people…

It wasn’t planned very far ahead-

although it was recorded and you can listen to it online…

It was a small rally-

and his number two Ralph Abernethy was supposed to do it but had fallen ill.

So King adapted someone else work called The Drum Major instinct.

In it he preaches on Living out our Baptism Vows and living a Baptised Life.

He uses Jesus’ own teaching about Baptism recorded in Mark:

where the Sons of Zebedee request to sit on his right and left in his kingdom.


The point he makes is that the desire for recognition and importance

is deep inside us.

And not in a good way.

It is the root of prejudice, of exclusion,   of vanity and of insecurity..


The tragedy of our condition- something that we reject at baptism is that to feed this instinct we push other people away and we push other people down…

Getting past that instinct- King says- is the great issue of life.

It is- the working out of our baptism vows

Instead of pushing people away- drawing them in.

Instead of pushing people down- lifting them up.

The original Martin Luther-, in his commentary on this passage remembers to his congregation the old German tradition of

of naming this Sunday White Sunday (a German Whitsun):

A good day to be baptised he says-

and therefore a great time

to remember the first infant truths of our religion:

In our prayer over the water we hear that religion summarised rather well:

We thank you, Father, for the water of baptism.

In it we are buried with Christ in his death.

By it we share in his resurrection.

Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.


In the sermon the other Martin Luther- King imagines Jesus telling us of that rebirth even more directly:


Oh, I see, you want to be first. 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. He turns our instinct on its head.

And he said, “Yes, don’t give up this instinct.

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 and kindness”!

Earlier this week I was talking to a young adult here about getting baptised.

I was- in my own fumbling way-

trying to talk to her about this whole new life that these two Luthers describe


Although Martin Luther (the German one), had to work famously hard at living up to his vows:

Shouting at the Devil, on one occasion: ‘Get out! I am baptised!’

Nevertheless he reminds us that baptism is not really just a one off event

It is the beginning of an ongoing work to reorder our lives…

away from our sinful instincts and towards a HOLY LIFE.



According to his commentary on the second lesson this evening

that ongoing life involves

participating actively in the church and the sacraments

and thereby living a life that seeks to be Holy


“In this sentence is included all we possess in the kingdom of Christ”, LUTHER says

“Here John unites all the elements in one bundle:

In a triune witness they bear joint witness to our faith

and confirm it–these three: the water, the blood and the Spirit”.


Water– of baptism

Wine- of the Eucharist

The Holy Spirit- the dynamic in and of the life of the Church

According to both Martin Luther and Martin Luther King

baptism is an initiation rite into


a very specific ongoing way of life,

that SHOULD lead to gratitude, love, holiness, discipline, beauty, kindness


Following Christ into baptism is never- in the end-

an intellectual decision or a cultural interest…


It is not a philosophical puzzle to solve or to gamble on like some cosmic insurance scheme

Christian life is not an idea- it is an experience

It is not a solution-   it is a lifelong question

It will never be neat and packaged- it is ever evolving

The real thing will never be tame

It will be the journey of a lifetime!

I wonder where you are on that journey? And where are you headed?

What would moral excellence look like in your day to day life?

And what would your 2020 look like if you lived up ,

more fully, to your baptismal promises?


Martin Luther King is an icon about what such a journey might look like

“Who didn’t expect or achieve perfection by any means)

But who, at the close of that Drum Major Sermon, concluded that

nothing more could be expected of any of us than “we tried”



“I’d like for somebody to say, that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody”.

– he said as he roused the congregation to their feet….

I want you to say, that I tried to be right on the war question.

I want you to be able to say that I did try, in my life, to clothe those who were naked.

I want you to say, on that day, that I did try, in my life, 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!! “


At one minute past six the following afternoon King was shot dead by a lone sniper.

He was indeed remembered…

But not for his honorary degrees, awards, and other accolades

He was remembered for HOW HE LIVED OUT HIS BAPTISM

and….in the end-

being baptised with the baptism of his master.


May it be so for us…

Wherever God leads us

throughout this year to come.








¶The Church of Christ

Lord, as we are all united in baptism, we ask you to help us break down the barriers that keep us apart and resist our insticts to push others, and you, away. As all things are made new in your son, renew your Church, we pray, that we may gather new strength for the mission that you have charged us, growing in holiness and moral excellence day by day.


Lord, as you have called us, make us worthy of our calling:

in your mercy, hear our prayer


¶Creation, human society, the Sovereign and those in authority

Lord, as your Holy Spirit moved upon the face of the waters, you brought light into the world. Look now, we pray, on the hidden corners of our world and lighten the darkness of ignorance and error, that the world may be truly free.

Breathe something of your wisdom and compassion into the souls of those who have authority over others, that they may exercise it wisely.


Lord, as you have called us, make us worthy of our calling:

in your mercy, hear our prayer


¶The local community

Pour forth, O Lord, your love upon this land and its people as we try to follow the example of your Son in whom you were well-pleased.  Daily renew in us the desire to serve you and our neighbour and help us to overcome all pettiness in our dealings with each other and to play our own part of lifting others up and and drawing others close.


Lord, as you have called us, make us worthy of our calling:

in your mercy, hear our prayer



¶Those who suffer

Lord, look with pity we pray on those whose lives are bruised, whose hopes are quenched. Help them to feel the reality of your wonderful promise that you will be a constant presence to us through fire and flood, and that we shall not be overwhelmed since you are with us always, even unto the end of the world.


We remember those in Australia, those connected with the Ukranian plane that was shot down last week, and those for whom we are bound to pray.


Lord, as you have called us, make us worthy of our calling:

in your mercy, hear our prayer.


¶The communion of saints

We commend to your love those who, washed in the water of baptism, were close to you in this life and are now one with you in the life eternal

Among them we name…… and MLK

May they rest in your love and the life of the Holy Spirit


And we say- the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ