“Extravagance Anxiety”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
7 April, 2019
Lent 5C
Philippians 3:10-14
John 12:1-8

It was six days before the Passover, and Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem with others to celebrate the holiday. On their way, they spent the night with Jesus’ dear friends, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, who were throwing a dinner party for him.  The last time Jesus had come to see them, the sisters were distraught: their brother, Lazarus, was dead.  John reports in Chapter 11 that Lazarus was in the grave four days by the time Jesus arrived.  At that point, Mary and Martha were beside themselves: they were certain Jesus could have healed their brother if he’d come immediately.  But he hadn’t.  It’s clearly a story meant to offer us something about God’s timing and ours being different, and God’s wisdom being more comprehensive than our limited human understanding.

Anyways, the climax of the last encounter this family had with Jesus was when Jesus called his friend Lazarus to come out of his tomb. And, to the astonishment and consternation of those who were there, Lazarus emerged—raised from the dead.  It was an act revealing a power that blew their minds.  What was happening—and how, and why?!?

Jesus did something dramatic, surprising, and unexplainable in resurrecting Lazarus.  He demonstrated a world-changing force that amazed people, and confirmed that this unexpected teacher and healer was, in fact, doing God’s work.  Jesus’ raising of Lazarus gave others hope that he could also transform their personal realities, breathe fresh life and purpose into their own lives.  It was a power that later inspired the apostle Paul, who had never even met Jesus in the flesh, to adopt a similar sort of fearlessness—I’ll get to that in a moment.

But compelling as it was to some, the power of Christ Jesus felt like a major threat to those invested in the status quo, not least the religious leaders and power-brokers who felt a measure of ownership and control over the community.  It was anxiety-provoking to anyone who was unwilling to entertain the possibility that their view of the world and their intentions might be different from God’s.

Although there’s never an exact script or crystal ball view of how events will unfold, and although we’re not consciously aware of it, I think the human spirit often senses when something big is about to happen.  Some of this awareness gets manifested in expressions of anxiety.  We get edgy, defensive.  We can’t concentrate or digest information in ways that feel nonthreatening.  We instinctively look for a way to control the situation or the environment around us.  We find fault with others and find it difficult to be curious—it feels more important to resist any changes that are happening.  It’s all related to our fight-or-flight instincts.  But the bottom line is, when we lack a deep confidence that whatever is unfolding is under control, or won’t somehow harm us in an ultimate way, we get anxious.

That’s what was going on at Mary, Martha, and Lazarus’s house that night.  We don’t know what went through Mary’s mind when she purchased the expensive perfumed ointment she massaged into Jesus’ feet—though it makes sense that she might have thought it would be an appropriate, even if extravagant, act to express her immeasurable gratitude for what Jesus had done for her and her family.  Given their grief when Lazarus died, and the corresponding joy when Jesus restored him to life, somehow flowers and a card, or even a nice dinner party in his honor, would not have seemed significant enough.  Her gift was dramatic, extraordinary.  It was an expression of complete trust and vulnerability on her part, which made it memorable and powerful not just for her but for everyone else there.

It made Judas deeply uncomfortable, and he expressed his anxiety by complaining that she was being wasteful—the money would have been better used to serve the poor.  Sometimes when we’re anxious, we blurt things.  It’s a way of releasing some of the tension, and it often happens before we even think about it.  Sometimes, it’s a way of avoiding the deeper reflecting we need to do on a situation, but our mind or spirit just can’t cope in the moment; we simply can’t or don’t want to do the possibly painful work required to examine what’s making us so uncomfortable.

I suspect the anxiety that Judas was expressing just then was rooted as much in the social awkwardness of the moment, as it was in an unconscious feeling of regret or remorse that he himself couldn’t show equal devotion.  In fact, because he was contemplating betraying Jesus, Judas’ spirit was undoubtedly feeling profoundly conflicted—whether he could consciously acknowledge that to himself or not.

Witnessing extravagance can make us anxious.  When we see someone else make a lavish demonstration—one that we recognize is full of meaning and even brings the giver joy—it can frighten us, because it might provoke us to weigh up our own values and actions.  Consciously or unconsciously, we may question our personal inclination to hold back so as not to be wasteful, wondering now whether that might actually be depriving us of something greater.  Or, it might make us ponder whether we’re generous enough.  Obviously, it creates some internal stress!

Jesus told Judas to leave Mary alone.  He understood the impulse behind her actions, and he also saw the bigger picture, as well as the theological implications of her devotion.  Beyond that, he recognized and understood Judas’ ambivalence—but he didn’t condemn his disciple.  He said, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”  If Jesus was aware at that moment that Judas was conspiring to betray him, he didn’t humiliate Judas by saying so.  Either way, he allowed Judas to work through what he needed to work through, in order to honor Judas’ own personal faith and life journey.

I wonder how the other disciples and friends at the dinner that night felt, watching this unfold.  All of them were aware that they were hanging out with an increasingly controversial figure.  In fact, they had discouraged Jesus from returning to heal Lazarus when Mary and Martha had called for him, because they were aware of the potential threat to his wellbeing; they already knew that there were people who wanted him dead. And as that increasingly became the case, they were having to weigh up for themselves what their devotion to the Messiah was asking of them: how much were they personally willing to sacrifice to see that his mission and ministry was successful?  It was a question that changed shape multiple times across the week or two that followed, as Jesus was arrested, tortured, and killed—and then experienced his own resurrection.

Several decades after this dinner party, and not having been one of Jesus’ original disciples, the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Philippi, saying: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his suffering by becoming like him in his death . . . if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”[1]  Paul was writing from prison, and was very aware of the threat to his physical safety. But all was well with his soul. He seems as determined and fearless as Jesus was in sharing the truth of God’s love and vision for humankind. That meant rejecting the idea that worldly authorities or what other people might think had any sort of ultimate power over him.  So he continued, “… [F]orgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”[2]

Years prior, Paul had discovered that God in Christ Jesus was true and faithful.  He had dared to trust, and that faith was rewarded.  So he risked more, becoming willing to sacrifice and suffer even more substantially, for the sake of knowing God more fully—demonstrating that God’s redemptive love and resurrection power is greater than any worldly strength.  Paul knew that suffering at the hands of authorities who would work the fear angle, threatening and imposing pain and misery, was to be expected; it’s what worldly powers-that-be resort to in order to retain their feeling of control.  But God has other plans, and as Paul and Jesus demonstrated, when people who trust in God are faithful, they manifest a courageous power that’s even greater than suffering or sacrifice.  Anxiety is overcome by the peace that abides with those whose faith is sure.

Our capital campaign is entering its final planned phases.  And, according to our campaign advisor, it’s always at this point—in the weeks leading up to the direct “ask” of each member—that the anxiety level reaches a fever pitch.

Here’s what I’ve heard explicitly named as anxieties here in our community.  Some are concerned that they simply can’t give and are therefore less welcome or valued as members of our community, mistakenly thinking money is all we’re after.  Some are unsure that what they decide to give will be received as “enough.”  People are afraid they’ll be judged.  A few may not support the project, and some think $2 million is too much to ask—though I’ve not heard anyone say that they don’t believe God is involved in all this. Some simply don’t want to discuss it and seem to resent being asked, which reflects a conflicted spirit.  I’ve heard that some of you don’t want Caring Callers coming to your homes for a variety of reasons.  That’s a lot of anxiety I’ve just named. . . doesn’t it help to know that, according to the expert, we’re pretty normal?

Friends, nothing in this campaign is intended to arm-twist, embarrass, or shame anyone.  The gift each household chooses to make is understood by God, and cannot be judged by anyone who sees the sums, or your note indicating that your contribution will take another form.  The Caring Callers will not be looking at your Letter of Intent, they will simply be calling on you with a spirit of caring and connection—so that each person who participates in this collective effort will always remember how their contribution included a genuine human connection with another member of Christ’s body.  If the prospect of someone coming to your home still fills you with anxiety and not hope or faith, then please do confidentially contact Ed Wigfield or me. Like I said, this is meant to feel caring and connecting, not overbearing or threatening.

Next Sunday, we will mark the end of the 275thyear since this church ordained and installed its first settled pastor, the Rev’d. Daniel Emerson, on 20thApril, 1743, and we’ll move forward into our next compelling chapter.  We will also remember Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem to waving palms and adoring shouts of, “Hosanna” which quickly turned to defiant cries of “Crucify him!”  We’ll hear fabulous music from our choir and special musicians performing a medley from Godspellas we embark on our annual Holy Week journey. As we remember the first disciples’ faith, hope, and gratitude, we’ll decide how we might best express our own, through committing to God’s vision for this congregation’s future.  And we’ll consider how we—like Paul—might hope to better “know Christ and the power of his resurrection” by “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, . . . [we will] press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

May God’s love and assurance guide us, inspire us, and liberate us from all anxiety in the coming weeks, so that our gratitude for God’s extravagance might be expressed with joy.  Amen.

[1]Philippians 3:10, 12.

[2]Philippians 3:13b-14.

© 2020 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC