Recently I visited a new restaurant in our neighbourhood. It was an experience. It was supposed to be a soft open, but instead word spread very quickly and they had lineups of people wanting to dine in and take out. The first sign something was off was when we arrived they said they couldn’t accommodate us without a reservation. They seemed to prefer we simply leave and come back another day and in fact many people who walked through the door did just that. But then the owner proceeded to seat us at a table that had a “reserved” sign. We weren’t sure if we would need to move to another table after it came free, but instead we stayed at this table for our entire meal. They hadn’t yet developed systems for taking orders and delivering food in a timely manner. Instead they had people making food in the kitchen and then bringing food to people when it was ready. Including food we hadn’t ordered. It was more of a set menu after the fact. We did receive our appetizers and then different main courses than the ones we had ordered. Including one dish we were told upon arriving that would was temporarily not available that evening. After the food arrived at our table we had to ask for wait staff to bring us plates…twice. And yet the food was amazing. Five stars on freshness and taste. Just wonderful. It was worth the wait and the chaos. Mainly I hope they work out their systems so they can stay open. Some people had a hard time dealing with the chaos and grew upset demanding to know whether they should stay or leave after waiting one hour for their food. The owners could only answer they were trying their best. That they had never run a restaurant before and had only anticipated a few customers visiting the first few weeks they were open. However news spread fast about their amazing food. They could not escape their reputation that had grown overnight.
This odd but amazing restaurant experience is a light-hearted humorous version of the kind of chaos we have experienced collectively in recent years. It has a good ending and we realize that not all stories these days have a good ending. The gospel reading for the First Sunday of Christmas is not an easy one. Herod is a selfish chaos monster who is unpredictable. If he was an everyday person we would call him a sociopath. But instead powerful men like Herod tend to be called euphemisms like someone who rules with an iron fist. It’s almost a compliment. But there is nothing redeeming about someone’s actions, ordering the slaughter of thousands of infants. That’s for Herod to answer before God.
Diane G. Chen frames today’s gospel reading as a tension between two extremes. On the one hand there is the risk of Herod’s violence against the infants. And on the other hand there is the safety of God’s deliverance of Jesus. Chen offers some historical context for Jesus’ deliverance. Joseph is warned in a dream by an angel to take Mary and Jesus and flee to safety in Egypt. This is an ironic reversal since Egypt was the source of imprisonment and slavery for Ancient Israelites. It was precisely Egypt they needed to flee and yet here what was previously dangerous is what now offers safety.
And although Joseph mostly has a silent role in the gospels, he is an exemplar of faith. Heeding the divine vision he accepts God’s gift of salvation for a Saviour without hesitation. It is a question Chen puts back to us as Christians today. How many of us are open to hearing God’s promise of deliverance for us? Too often we are fixated on the truly awful stories that resonate like the slaughter of the holy innocents. We are glued to constant updates on our electronic devices. I know I need more distance from the 24/7 cycle of news and social media that produce more and more click bait headlines in order to drive advertising.
The gospel challenges us to recognize in the midst of the horrors of the Herod’s in the world, God is also at work promising deliverance. But not always in the ways we want or expect. How many of us have imagined what we would do if we were in charge of a vast military and could bring violent rulers to their knees? Or if we were billionaires that we could counter the machinations of evil billionaires who underpay workers and keep them working as serfs whose wages we subsidize through government programs. If we just had the power then we could set things straight. And yet God who we also call almighty and immortal doesn’t act in these ways typically. God sends a divine message to the Magi not to return to Herod and reveal Jesus’ location. God uses these unknown foreigners to thwart the plans of a powerful ruler. God sends a family of three into hiding until Herod dies. There is no lightning bolt that brings Herod to his knees. Instead there are subtler means of deliverance that nevertheless accomplish a similar purpose.
How is God thwarting the powers of the world through us here at Church of the Cross - a mid-size Lutheran church on Vancouver Island? Most people don’t even know who Lutherans are, especially on the island. We find ourselves in a time of decline of mainline churches and yet God has entrusted us with this mission. We too are invited into the story of deliverance. A story of good news for people who are overwhelmed by rising inflation. Anxious by the spread of an ongoing pandemic. Sleepless with worry about children and grandchildren. What is God’s hope for us in 2023? One thing may be rest. Just as God delivered Jesus from a life of constant wandering. Jesus and family were able to rest. In finding rest we’re able to dream dreams, listen to divine visions, and strategize for the short and long-term.
Recently many of us met over two gatherings to reflect upon Church of the Cross’ own visions and priorities. We felt a buzz in the room. The presence of the Holy Spirit. We felt God was calling us to sustain the amazing ministries we have built and to be directed in new ways. We think about welcoming refugees, welcoming strangers, in the same way the Holy Family welcomes the Magi. How God is with us in the midst of challenging times. One thing we heard from so many folks is that they are tired and desire rest. And through rest have renewed energy to imagine ministry together.
So many people have talked about struggles with insomnia. Insomnia tends to increase collectively during times of worry and anxiety. No wonder in times of pandemic, climate crisis, liberation for marginalized groups, and economic woes that people have been losing sleep. And so we are in search of sleep. In search of places of restfulness and safety. Just as the angels led the holy family into safety. And restfulness reveals itself in different ways. There is literally getting sleep, which is important. There is also engaging in restful activities such as making art, reading, writing, playing sports, going for a walk, looking at birds, collecting mushrooms, weaving. All kinds of things that bring restfulness to our souls. And this restfulness is needed in order that we flourish over the long-term. That we renew our energies and feel supported and renewed.
What if getting rest is a revolutionary answer to a world of chaos and work? I invite you to think what restfulness look like for you. I invite myself think about this as well. It’s often easy as pastors that we encourage others to do things that we don’t always do well ourselves. One way I find restfulness funny enough is through running. But running isn’t work in the sense that it isn’t productive. Running doesn’t accomplish anything on my to do list. Running isn’t practical or useful. It could be argued that running is useless, that I could better put that energy towards movement that builds something, that gets a job done. But that’s precisely what makes running restful for me. It has no purpose apart from renewal, joy, and celebrating God’s gifts of having a body. What is the thing that brings you restfulness? Whether it involves movement or absolutely none? Key to restfulness is pushing back against the voices in our society that say we need to work more. That we need to get more done.
A story about restfulness. I often like to write in cafes because it is restful, helps generate ideas. And it’s great for people watching. I overhear bits of conversations. The amazing way people dress. The music the baristas choose to play. All of that together is a reminder about what a wonderful community we live in. There was a mother who was at the table next to me. She is Black and uses a scooter for mobility, which cannot be easy to navigate spaces that are predominantly white and built for able-bodied people. Her young child was with her who was full of energy. It was wonderful to see the absolute joy of a restless child with stories to share. And to see them spend this time together at the cafe. As she was leaving she apologized for the restlessness of her son, for wiggling around. I said I’m used to it. Know all about kids needing to move and share stories. It was a friendly exchange and we wished each other Happy New Year’s.
What would it look like for us enjoy more of these moments. Making spaces welcoming for racialized people, for disabled people, for children? Something for us to dream about and discern divine visions for 2023.
May you find rest this coming year. May you discern God’s desire for safety for you. In the midst of the chaos of the world to find God’s desire for restfulness for you. Amen.