A sermon preached at Vineland United Mennonite Church
Sunday, May 2, 2021
Additional Texts: Mark 15:40-41, Matthew 27:55-56
I wonder what it was like for Jesus as he “…went through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God.”(Luke 8:1 NRSV) We can imagine Jesus travelling from place to place on dusty roads, preaching on hillsides and seashores, travelling all over with his band followers. As we read these few short verses about his travels, what questions do we ask? What do we wonder about?
Today, I want to wonder about some practical things. We’re all practical people as Mennonites. We see this in church meetings. If someone says, “Let’s renovate our foyer” the response is always, “Well, how much is it going to cost?” If someone says, “Let’s sponsor a refugee family,” we soon hear someone ask, “Well, where is the money going to come from?” Whenever we want to do something new in the church, someone is always quick to ask the question about the bottom line.
And it’s pretty normal for us to ask those practical questions because that’s the way we live our lives. We are practical people. If we want to do something, say like buy a car or go on a trip, almost the first thing we ask is, “How much is it going to cost?”
That’s why when we hear these stories about Jesus’ ministry, him travelling around from place to place with all his followers, we ask the practical questions “How much is this costing? Where is the money coming from? What is the bottom line here?” Or do we?
I don’t know about you, but I have to admit that for myself this has rarely crossed my mind. I know there was money involved in Jesus’ life —Judas carried the money for the group–but we rarely stop to ask, “How much money did Jesus’ travels cost?” or “Where was the money coming from?” That’s why today’s verses are so very interesting: Luke 8:1-3;
Soon afterwards Jesus went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
There are a number of surprising things about this passage; for starters, the idea that women were travelling with Jesus. This would have been very unusual for the time, where women had a very set role in society, and following a religious leader around the countryside was pretty much out of the box. We don’t really think about Jesus travelling with women. We visualize him as travelling from place to place with his group of twelve male disciples. The scripture we just read suggests that it wasn’t such a small group, and that the group included women.
Luke isn’t the only gospel writer to mention this. The writers of the gospels of Matthew and Mark both tell us that women were travelling with Jesus. They mention it at the end of Jesus’ life. Here is Mark 15:40-41; There were also women looking on from a distance, among them were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome….and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.
So the followers of Jesus were a big group of people: the twelve disciples plus Jesus, plus Mary Magdalene, Susanna, Joanna, the other Mary, Salome, and many others, both men and women, who are unnamed. How big a group of people? We just don’t know, but adding up the names of the people listed, it comes to around 20, but maybe it was more than that. That’s a big entourage, it’s lot of people to take care of. How much did it cost to finance that tour and where did they get the money?
In scripture we often see people extending hospitality to Jesus, but if they invited Jesus to dinner, were they inviting his 20 followers? If they offered to put Jesus up for the night, did that mean that you had to find a place for 20 people to sleep? Jesus must have experienced some hospitality, certainly, but this big group of people had to be fed every day, they had to find a place to sleep, and they had to have clothing and sandals because they must have worn out their shoes walking from place to place!
It’s hard to know how many day’s wages it would have taken to keep Jesus’ band of followers fed and clothed and housed. In Jesus’ time, they used a Roman silver coin called a denarius, which was equal to a worker’s wage for a day. But I’m going to talk about it in dollars, and try and put it in modern day terms, so it’s easier for us to understand. Imagine you were going to take a year to not work for wages, but instead volunteer your time, and travel and spread good news about Jesus. How much would that cost?
This week I talked to Jeanette Hanson, who works for Mennonite Church Canada Witness, and she told me that the average cost for maintaining a volunteer mission worker in the field is $40,000 per person, and more when there is a lot of travel involved, or if there are children who need to be supported or educated as well.
Let’s say that Jesus travelled in a group of 20 people, $40,000 times 20 people equals $800,000. Then we multiply that by three for each of the years of ministry and that equals a bottom line of $2,400,000!! That is just a guess at what it might have cost in today’s dollars to support Jesus & his followers. We really have no idea what it would have cost back then, but I am sure it was not no small potatoes to run a missions program even then! So where was the huge amount of money coming from?
I don’t think Jesus could have saved up enough personally to support this whole group. He was probably a humble carpenter before his ministry began, and he didn’t come from a rich family. Did Jesus miraculously produce money or multiply money, the way he multiplied the loaves and fishes? There is that one story about Peter finding the coin for taxes in the fish’s mouth (Matthew 17:27), but other than that there are no miracle stories involving money. Imagine the disciples going to pay a big food bill, but their purse was empty, but then they looked again and it was suddenly full of coins! I am sure if that had happened, they would have recorded it in scripture. I know I would remember that if it happened to me. It would be seared in my memory for all time!
Or could it be that Jesus miraculously provided food for the disciples every day without buying it? We know that Jesus fed large groups of people miraculously sometimes, but even at the Last Supper, Jesus had the disciples go ahead of time and make preparations, he didn’t just make the bread appear out of nowhere. If God provided manna for Jesus’ followers every time they were hungry I think we would have heard about it in the gospels.
Could it have been the twelve disciples who were paying for Jesus’ ministry? The gospels suggest the disciples left everything to follow Jesus. When Jesus invited the disciples to follow, he didn’t say, “Sell your boats and come follow me with the money you’ve made from the sale.” He didn’t tell Matthew, who probably the richest, “Bring that money you’ve made collecting taxes and come follow me. I don’t think the disciples were funding their travels.
In scripture we never see Jesus doing any fundraising for himself. There isn’t one place where he asks for money for his ministry. Think of when he meets the rich young man; Jesus tells him to sell his possessions and give to the poor. Jesus does not say, “Sell your possessions and give the money to my ministry. I have a lot of bills to pay. It’s expensive travelling around the countryside with this group of people.”
None of those scenarios are likely. What we do know is these eight words: “and provided for him when he was in Galilee” (Mark 15:41) In three of the gospels, it tells us that it was the women who paid the bills and they list some women. Each gospel has a slightly different list– Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna and Salome and the other Mary, the mother of the sons of Zebedee. These women were paying the bills. These women were committed to supporting Jesus. We know at least one of them, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, was probably wealthy. In our text today, the phrase “provided for him” is translated form the Greek word diakonia…from which we get our word deacon. The women gave service to Jesus by supporting his ministry.
I don’t know about you, but this scripture really surprises me. Many of us grew up with bible stories, we know the name Mary Magdalene. What comes to mind when you hear the name, “Mary Magdalene”? Usually we think, “She’s a sinner” or “she had demons cast out of her.” But three places in scripture it tells us that she paid the bills for Jesus’ ministry!
We have not given credit where credit is due! How come I didn’t learn about this in Sunday school? It is important to read scripture carefully and hear the story of the women’s faithfulness. Their diakonia, their service, meant paying the bills.
Some of the women were present when Jesus died. The gospel writers record the story of the women standing there at Golgotha, faithful to the end. The same troupe of loyal women that had walked together so many miles for so many years. Here they stand at the foot of the cross, with broken hearts and perhaps with broken bank accounts, having spent all they had on Jesus. They loved Jesus to the end, in diakonia.
In the Easter stories we recently read, it was the women who went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. Who paid for all the spices they were going to use to do that? Probably the women again! And of course they were the first witnesses to the risen Christ. They were there with the disciples as they went out from an upper room, filled with the Holy Spirit, to spread the good news of Jesus Christ! I wonder whether the women continued to fund the work of the first missionaries.
From the beginning of the church until today, faithful giving supports the mission of the church. I think we need to celebrate that.
One of the most famous missionaries of the 1900s was a man named Frank Laubach. Born in Pennsylvania, he was brought up in the Methodist church. In the 1920s he and his wife Effa went to the Philippines to be missionaries to a group of Muslim people called the Moros. He worked there for 15 years with almost no success. Feeling very low one day, he went for a walk up a hill near the town where he lived, and he heard God speaking to him,
“My child, you have failed because you do not really love these Moros. You feel superior to them because you are white. If you can forget that you are American and think only how I love them, they will respond.” He also heard God saying, “If you want the Moros to be fair to your religion, be fair to theirs. Study their Koran with them.” After that encounter with God he engaged in a new way with the Moros, trying to understand their religion and their world, reading the Koran. As part of that work he taught himself their dialect (Maranawo). This was an oral language, it was never written down, but he created a simple system of writing so he could remember the words he was learning. He decided to teach the Moro people how to write their language with the simple system he had developed. His system was very effective, people could learn to read in a few hours. He bought a small printing press, and published some simple reading material in Maranawo and distributed it. A long story short is that Frank Laubach’s simple method became fabulously popular, and people started to take note. In the next couple of decades Frank took his literacy program to over 100 countries and 300 languages, over 100 million people learned to read with his method. All along the way he shared about his love for God…he inspired millions of people with his spiritual classic book Letters by a Modern Mystic.
God used Frank Laubach to reach out to the world, to improve the lives of so many people, and preserve their langauges…but none of this would have been possible without the people who paid the bills for Laubach’s ministry. We celebrate people like Frank, but we forget about the unknown men and women who put money into the offering plate Sunday after Sunday, year after year, decade after decade. They provided for him, diakonia, they served, so that he could serve.
In this congregation here in Vineland, there have been so many years of faithful giving. This congregation has supported Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Church Eastern Canada, Mennonite Disaster Service, Westview Centre for Women, Silver Lake Mennonite Camp and the Niagara Life Centre. We can’t begin to add up the difference all those places have make, and none of the work would have happened without the diakonia…the service that people offered by faithful giving. You are part of the big story of missions, of God doing great things through these ministries.
And I’m mindful of the fact that I’m preaching in this beautiful building. Some of the seniors here remember when it was built, and contributed to the mortgage for years. But this congregation today benefits from the generosity of a generation of people who are no longer here, who gave in faithful sacrificial ways to build and pay for this house of worship.
During this pandemic, when we can’t get together, and we can’t go places, and we can’t do a lot of things, what we can do is reflect. We can reflect and be thankful for the ways we have been served by the faithfulness of others, working behind the scenes.
Recently one of my cousins died in the hospital of COVID-19. She received very good care from the doctors and nurses. I sent a special thank you to the chaplain who works at the hospital. My cousin’s family was diagnosed with COVID at the same time that she was, and so they could not all go in to the hospital to be with her. But the chaplain was able to go and spend time with my cousin and pray with her, and that gave such comfort the family; and he called the family to offer support to them too. I am so thankful not just for medical personnel but also for others who serve behind the scenes, the chaplains and social workers, who reach out and support people through these difficult times. And there are others who served my cousin by preparing medicine, by making food for her, by making sure her room was clean. When we remember this pandemic time, I hope that we remember all the people who served in difficult circumstances, whether that’s the clerks at the grocery stores and pharmacies, the truckers who kept supply lines going, the farmers, the firefighters and police and ambulance workers, the teachers who have worked so hard to teach in new ways and help kids who are missing their friends, and so many more.
This pandemic time has left many people feeling very isolated and alone. As a church, we have managed to be a community even when we can’t be together, even when we have to have virtual services, like this one. Pastors and so many volunteers have helped us stay connected.
I am here this morning to share good news. The bottom line is that we are not alone, we are never alone, God is with us. In the Psalm we read today, it says “Our steps are made firm by the Lord….though we stumble, we shall not fall headlong, for the Lord holds us by the hand.” (Psalm 37:23-24) Maybe you can remember being a kid, and holding your parent’s hand, and you trip over a crack in the sidewalk and lose your balance and start to fall, but then your parent holds you up so that you can get your feet under you again. “Though we stumble, we shall not fall headlong, for the Lord holds us by the hand.” This pandemic time has been so hard for so many people I know…so many are losing their balance…the whole world is stumbling, we are all stumbling along.
But God is holding our hand. We are not alone. God is helping us keep our balance. God is doing great things through the many many people who are serving our community. People who do their jobs with courage. People who make good news happen even when no one notices, who faithfully do the behind the scenes work that make our communities good places to live.
Did Mary Magdalene and the other women ever get a thank you for all that she did? History has not remembered her faithfulness, but I know that Jesus did. We are practical people. Do you know someone who has been serving others through this long pandemic? This week I invite you to offer a practical thank you. Maybe it’s a thank you card, or a gift certificate to Tim Hortons or a restaurant, and maybe it’s a phone call of encouragement, where you say you notice their service and how much you appreciate it.
Let’s take this week to say thank you to God, and thank you to each other. God is with us. Amen! Have a good week!
Song of Response: “God is With Us” by Pepper Choplin
Song of Response Video: We are not alone