Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.
Saint Meinrad Archabbey sits on a hilltop in a little community that bears the same name, St. Meinrad, Indiana. Population: not so many, really. Without the monks and the students in the seminary, there wouldn’t be very many people, at all. But there would be cows, lots and lots of cows. On account of all the dairy farms there… And when it’s hot. And the wind is just right… The cows make their presence known. You just… you don’t forget that they are there, believe me. You can smell them. Not them, really. It’s what they produce… and I’m not talking about milk, mind you. But the stuff people spread around the garden. Nature’s fertilizer. Oh my… you step outside and it almost takes your breath away. Kind of makes you wish something would take it away.
Ann used to make fun of me whenever I’d say it, but the cow stuff there does not smell the same as it does here… Here, in West Virginia, there’s a sweetness to it. Really. (I know this because I grew up across the creek from McSweeney’s, a little dairy farm in Wayne County. It was almost pleasant, in a way.) But at Saint Meinrad, it’s not pleasant at all. It’s… it’s almost violent at times. Something that could do you great harm (physically and mentally). There’s nothing sweet about it whatsoever.
But something strange happens when you open the door of the great abbey church. Just as you open the door and start to cross the threshold, the odor from the dairy farm blends with the lingering smell of incense… And it does something. It says something, I think. Something profound. I have no idea what, mind you, but it’s something deep and profound.
Anyway, the dairy farms and the cows and the humble people who live at the abbey remind me of a story that my grandmother told me (more than once, I think) when I was a little boy. It was a story about life on the farm. Not a dairy farm… It was more like Old MacDonald’s farm. With chickens and a horse and a goat and a milk cow and a goose. There was even a cat there. And a dog or two. So the story was about all of that. But it was really about something else. Something Jesus talked about. Here. In the gospel of Mark.
“There was a farm… not so far from here,” she said. And one day a little dog who lived there decided to go for a walk. Because he wanted to see what was there on the farm. So he left the front porch of his master house – the old farmhouse there. And walked all around the farm. And he saw things he’d never really seen before. Because he was still just a pup. The first thing the little dog saw was the barn. And next to the barn was a pen – a place out in the open that was surrounded by a big wooden fence.
And there on the other side of the fence was a big, beautiful horse. And when the horse saw the puppy, he said… Oh, did I tell you they could talk? The animals on this farm could talk to each other. So when the horse saw the puppy, he called out to him. “Hey you! You must be new here.” And he said something about the weather and how good it was to be outside and not locked up in a stall on such a beautiful day.
And then the big, beautiful horse looked down, way down at the little dog and said, “By the way, you’ll soon learn that the master loves me more than other animal here on the farm. Because I’m more important. I’m the greatest. The best of all,” he said. “Because I can carry great loads for him and pull the plow (which is heavy, you know). I can even carry him on my back and take him wherever he wants to go.” And he looked down at the puppy who was tiny compared to him. And he said, “An animal your size is of no use to him at all.”
The little dog hung his head and was about to walk away when he heard another voice. A big voice that was deep and low. It was the cow. She’d been grazing there in the pasture just beyond the fence. She said, “I’ll have you know that I have the most honored position on the farm. I’m more important than all the other animals here,” she said. “Because the farmer and the farmer’s wife make buttermilk and cheese and sweet cream butter from the milk that I give them. But you… you don’t provide anything for the family. So the horse is right. You aren’t important. You aren’t worth anything, are you?”
And then the sheep spoke up and said, “Listen, you old cow, you aren’t as important as me. The master takes the wool I give him and makes clothes. Sweaters and scarves and hats and things. So I keep the whole family warm. But,” he said to the little dog, “I wouldn’t want to be you. You don’t have anything to give them. Nothing, at all.”
And one by one every animal on the farm said, “I’m more important. I’m number one. I am the one who’s really important. And they argued about it. The chicken said she deserved the top spot on the farm. Because she fed the family – she gave them eggs. And what would they do without eggs to boil and scramble and cook with each day. And the cat said, “Now wait just a minute. The master’s house is free from mice because of me. So, I should have the place of honor, not you.”
And they quarreled and bickered and argued about who was the greatest and who was the best. But there was one thing they all took for granted. And that was that the little dog was not important at all. He had nothing to give. He was the least and the last and the lowest of all.
And the puppy ran away. He found a place under a tree away from all the other animals. And he started to cry. And then an old dog heard him sobbing. And he came to the little one and listened while he told him what had happened. And the puppy said, “They’re right. I don’t have anything to offer… To anyone,” he said.
And the old dog who was gentle and wise said. “It’s true. It’s true… you’re too small to pull a plow or a wagon. And you’ll never provide milk or eggs or wool for the master. But,” he said, “that doesn’t mean they’re better than you or more important. God created you, too, you know. So love and serve your master with the gifts that you have.”
Late that evening, when the farmer came home exhauster from working all day in the sun, the little dog saw him and ran to him wagging his tail and licking his feet. And then he jumped into his masters arms. And they played and romped around in the grass with barks and laughs and wiggles and smiles. And finally the little dog’s master held him close to his chest and patted his head. And he said, “No matter how tired and weary I am when I get home, I feel better when you greet me. I wouldn’t trade you for all the animals on the farm.”
Oh, did you hear what happened when they got to the house in Capernaum that day? The master, their Shepherd, took a little one in his arms. A little one, mind you. He embraced him and held him close to his heart. And it said something. Something deep and profound. The very thing we needed to hear…
They were on their way to Capernaum. Which was home for some of them. Peter and Andrew lived in Capernaum. And so did John and his brother James. They had come from the mountaintop – where Peter and James and John had seen Jesus in all of his glory. He was glowing. Transfigured says Mark. And his clothes became dazzling white – even whiter than any garment or robe they’d ever seen.
And they saw things there that they couldn’t explain. Things they couldn’t even comprehend. Moses and Elijah were there with Jesus. Moses and Elijah… who lived generations before them. Hundreds of years. And they saw the cloud. Not a dark cloud, mind you. A bright and shining cloud. And they heard a voice speak from the cloud! The Voice, God’s voice, said, “This is my Son, my beloved. Listen to him!” Nearly scared them to death.
They came down from the mountain. And right away, Jesus healed a boy who was in the grips of some unclean, evil thing that had taken over his life. And in just a short while, they left for home. For Capernaum by the sea. And as they made their way through Galilee, they kept to themselves. Away from the people, the crowds and the busy little towns and villages that surrounded the lake. Because Jesus wanted to be alone with his disciples so he could teach them… and help them learn about God and God’s ways and God’s kingdom.
He said, “The Son of Man (God’s anointed one, the Christ, or the Messiah) will be handed over to people who will kill him. They’ll put him to death…” Can you imagine? That was him! He was talking about himself! The One who stood with Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop. The One who was shining bright with God’s glory all around him! They’d heard this before. It was before they went to the mountain. Before they saw him as he really was. But now he was saying it again. “I’m going to be taken. I AM going to be put to death.” It didn’t make sense.
He told them… he told them twice. “After three days I will be raised.” But they didn’t get it. They just couldn’t comprehend such a thing. I mean… this wasn’t their idea of a messiah, at all. He’s supposed to rescue them. Deliver them from their oppressors. (You know… those pesky Romans. The occupation forces.) And he was supposed to bring in the Kingdom – the reign of God. Which surely meant taking control of Jerusalem. Because it was their land. Their home. And they were God’s people. He was supposed to bring in the glory days! Not die in defeat.
Maybe it was a story. Maybe it was like the story about the little dog on the farm. A parable, really. A story about something else. They just couldn’t figure it out. And they were afraid to ask. I don’t know why. It just didn’t fit.
So… they left it alone. Talked about something else. It got a little heated, says Mark. Looked like they were quarreling. Bickering. Arguing about something. So when they got to the house in Capernaum, Jesus asked them about it. “What were you arguing about on the way?”
You could have heard a feather drop. Nobody said a word. Not even Peter (which was unusual for him!). Shame does that. It brings silence. Not the good kind of silence. There isn’t enough of that. It was the kind that makes you squirm. The kind that makes you want to hide till it all goes away. But this wouldn’t go away. The smell of it lingered. And there was nothing sweet about it. It stank. It just reeked. Because… on the way, after Jesus said he would humble himself and become obedient, obedient unto death, they were arguing about which one of them was most important. Which one of them was going to have the highest rank in the Kingdom.
Oh, “I should be the one to be honored, I followed him first!
“No, I should be the one, I’m older and wiser.”
“But I went to the mountaintop. I saw Moses. I saw Elijah.”
And on and on it goes. “I’ve been a member longer than you… Well, it doesn’t matter, I paid my dues, if you know what I mean… Oh really? Well, I’ve rolled up my sleeves, nearly worked myself to death for this church. And no one ever thank me either… Oh, I know these people, this church is my life… Well then why don’t you show up a little more often.
And it goes on and on. And do you know who gets left out? Maybe it’s not who you think…
Jesus said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be last of all. And servant of all.”
People thought of children that way. It sounds so strange to us. But it’s true. Children were like servants. They had the same rights, the same place in the world as slaves. They were the least and the lowest. Of no value, no standing. In fact, if you called someone (a grown-up person) a child it was like calling them useless… worthless… trash…
And just then, in that moment. Jesus took a child, in his arms. And embraced him. Held the child close to his heart. And this is what he said. “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the One who sent me.”
That’s who gets left out… That’s who we leave out when we live as if our needs, our value, our place in God’s world is more important than somebody else’s. When we leave out the little one, whoever that may be, we leave out God.
But when we receive them. When we embrace them. When we love them and serve them and value them, we are loving and serving and worshiping (it means ascribing worth to) God.
There is young man named Palmer who led the campus ministry at Wheaton College (in Illinois, I think) a few years ago. He has a church now in Arizona. But something happened when he was at Wheaton that changed his life.
He took the basketball team, from Wheaton, to Africa. To Malawi. They were there to do some mission work, and to play some basketball, too. Palmer had made arrangements for the team from Wheaton College to play the African Bible College team there in Malawi.
But here’s the thing… Shoes, I mean any shoe in Malawi is a luxury. Lilongwe, is the capital. And Palmer, who grew up in West Africa says that it is the only African city where he has seen grown men walking down the streets without any shoes. They are barefoot. And because they are barefoot, they are ashamed. They don’t have any choice. But, in their culture, they feel terribly ashamed – worthless, mind you, because they don’t have any shoes. It is a sign to them. It says something about them, they think. That they are poor. Not just that… It says to them, “You have no worth, no value. You are trash. Throwaways. The lowest of the low.
So when Palmer took the basketball players from Illinois to have their first practice in the gym at Africa Bible College, he wasn’t really surprised to when he saw that two of the Malawi students in the gym were playing basketball with one shoe. I mean, each of them was wearing only one shoe.
Well… the players from Wheaton College had never seen anything like it. And they started to laugh. They were poking each other and pointing to the African players. Talking about how funny it was that two guys were playing basketball with one foot in a shoe and the other one bare!
Well… the Malawi coach was standing there. He had lived there in Malawi for about ten years he told them later. And one of the Wheaton players turned to him and asked why these guys were playing basketball in just one shoe.
And here’s what he said. “One of the players showed up today with no shoes. And his friend saw him. And he didn’t want him to be ashamed when your team arrived. So he lent him one of his shoes. Now they both have at least one shoe.”
And the laughing stopped. And there was silence. Not because they were a shamed. But because it said something. It said to the friend without any shoes, “You are important. You are of great worth. You are somebody – Someone is loved by God and by your brother.” And it said to the Wheaton players, “This is greatness. This is what it means to love and to serve.”
That’s what they saw and heard in the African Bible College gym. They saw Jesus put his arms around one of the little ones. Embracing him, holding him close to his heart. It was as if they had stood on the mountain with Moses and Elijah and saw Jesus in all of his glory. And they heard something – something like a Voice speaking to their hearts… Saying, “Thank you. I love you, too.”
“Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the One who sent me.”