On Monday of this week I listened again to a sermon that I first heard forty years ago. It was a classic message by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., entitled “The Drum Major Instinct.” It is a beautiful example of why I love the spoken word and its power to move the hearts and minds of individuals. I remember distinctly sitting as the teaching assistant in preaching class as we listened to Dr. King’s stirring oratory and silently despairing of ever being able to inspire as that great preacher was doing on a winter day in 1968.

It didn’t matter that Dr. King had “borrowed” the basic idea from the white Methodist preacher J. Wallace Hamilton. He acknowledged the debt and took the material and made it his own. Taking his text from Mark’s account of James and John asking Jesus for the seats of distinction in his kingdom, King wove his sermon around the “drum major instinct,” the very human tendency to “ask life to put us first.”

You may have heard a brief snippet from the sermon on Sunday night, coincidentally the fiftieth anniversary of when it was first preached. During the Super Bowl, Dodge used it ostensibly to inspire people to service, but most assuredly in the hopes that it would motivate people to run out and buy Ram pickups.

There is a certain irony in their choice. This is a paragraph from the sermon that was not included in the commercial:

Now the presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers. You know, those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion. And they have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car. In order to be lovely to love you must wear this kind of lipstick or this kind of perfume. And you know, before you know it, you’re just buying that stuff. That’s the way the advertisers do it.

You and I, as the followers of Jesus Christ who are called to proclaim the good news to everyone, are not selling anything.

We don’t hawk beer by demonstrating that a plant can switch from canning brew to canning water for disaster relief (Budweiser) or trying to convince someone that buying a “chalice” will support a clean water project in a developing country (Stella Artois). We won’t try to promote diversity by reminding consumers that, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, we can all share a Coke. We will not exploit first responders by telling people that the best way to support them is to sign up for a cellular plan (Verizon).

There is the danger, of course, that we in the Church can stoop to those tactics. We can seek to engender a warm fuzzy feeling while talking about the value of service and the importance of all the good things we do in the world, all the while desiring nothing more from people than their participation in our organization.

The Gospel is a gift, undeserved and unattainable through effort or merit. It is simply the offering of a relationship with our Creator to any who are willing to renounce self and seek forgiveness. You can’t package that. You can’t sell it. You just put it out there and let others take it if they will.

I have the minimal amount of faith in humanity required to believe that consumers can see through the exploitation of lofty ideals for crass economic purposes. I am equally convinced that they would immediately grasp our ulterior motive if we in the Church seek to use the Gospel for our own ends.

Let’s proclaim the Gospel in word and deed, not because we’re selling it, but because it’s God’s gift to the world.