The Siren Song of Christmas

Luke 2 1 12

December 23, 2012

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

A siren song is something you can’t resist, no matter how you try. All those who have heard it are dead, so they can’t tell you anything about it. As Margaret Atwood puts it so well in her poem, “Siren Song,” the siren song is what makes a soldier jump off the boat, to go to the beach and fight, even though he sees nothing but skulls lying there. The only people who make it alive, after they have heard the siren, are those who stuff their ears with wax so they can pass by safely and get out of the grips of the sirens.

The experience of Christmas in this culture is a kind of siren. It is death if we listen to it and life if we can stuff our ears with wax to it. You imagine I’m headed to a sneer at the materialism of our culture and a condemnation of consumerism. Or that I want to put the Christ back in Christmas, which I do, but not in the way you imagine. Or that I want us to slow down, smell the balsam, relax into the candlelight, instead of wash the stove again after the cookies are baked. Sorry, I’m not going there. Christmas at its heart is materialistic. It is the incarnation of God in a human, literally meaning God in the meat. Encarnacion. Metaphorically God splits from heaven and comes to earth, divinity comes to humanity, and eternity comes to humanity. The action of God in the birth of Jesus is material. It is if anything a blessing of the material, not a denial of it. It’s the difference between your lover saying “I love you” and his or her sending you flowers. At Christmas, God shows up with flowers in her hand.

There really is no surprise that we celebrate Christmas by shopping and handing things to each other, things which are meant to carry the meaning of Christmas, to imitate the action of God in gift giving, to bring all those emotions in our heart into our credit cards and wrapped packages with ribbons. The Spanish word says it so much better, Encarnacion, Christ in the meat. Think Chili Con Carne if you really want to get the point. Say Christ with Carne and you get to the utter materialism of Christmas.

Some of you will know the Luke passage by heart. I will go through it verse by verse to show you the utter materialism of its message. Verse one, It came to pass. That means in real time. Verse 2: Caesar Augustus issued a decree that all the world should be taxed. Verse 3: they name the duration of the taxation period. Verse 4. So everybody traveled to their own city to pay up and to do what they were told by the material leader. Verse 5 Repeat of the word tax (where is John Boehner when we need him?) and the travel of Mary, his pregnant wife, and Joseph to do their duty. They probably didn’t a car or an EZ pass. Verse 6. She is not only pregnant. She delivers the child, while not at home.. Verse 7 They couldn’t find a place to live, the hotels were booked, they end up in a manger, with the animals, with a swaddled baby. Verse 8 The working shepherds notice that something has happened. In Verse 9, we get the first spiritual verse after 8 consecutive material matters. The angels show up. Verse 10 The angels speak. “Fear not.” “Behold.” I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. This baby is holy and has dragged heaven into earth, eternity into time, and spirit into matter. The message is not anti-matter or materialism so much as pro-spirit in the meat. Verse 11 and following to the end of this great passage is about how happy everyone is that they are no longer alone with the sheep and the taxes and booked hotels. All heaven breaks loose and there is a multitude of heavenly hosts praising God and saying, Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth. ON EARTH, peace, good will to all.

The siren is not the materialism, the siren is the antipathy to the materialism, the missing of the story. Spiritual and material have come together in a child, a human, one such as us, with a pancreas and knees and hips and an unwed mother. As Marianna read so beautifully in her reflection from India, it never was ethereal and spiritual with chants playing in the background and everybody standing around in freshly starched and bleached white robs.. Christmas was always dingy, threatened by poverty, alert to the suffering of the real people in the real fields and the real streets, capping their ears to the ambulance alarms, the firemen rushing to save a baby or two from burning. Christmas was always smelly. Christmas was never spiritual in the first place, in that sleazy, slimy, suffocating way we understand spirituality. Christmas was always material, always a precious love sent to a stinking earth.

If there is a siren song of Christmas that we need to beware, out of fear for our own lives, it is the one from the sanitation department. The sanitizers of Christmas will kill you. How? They will kill you by confusing you about the spiritual and the material. They will make you think you can only have peace when the candles are lit or the yoga is practiced or the dishes done or after the air freshener has been spread around. That is exactly the opposite message of Christmas. It says God will come to you as a baby, with the smell of dung all around. Why will God do that? Because God loves you and misses you and wants to be with you. God loves you expertly. You may have been loved in expertly for way too long. But God loves you deftly, expertly. God knows the kinds of flowers you especially love. God loves you. That is the meaning of Christmas.

If you don’t hear anything else I say today, hear this. God loves you. God loves you. Joy of heaven to earth come down. You live in Bethlehem yourself. How still we see you lie. Remember that verse, “No ear can hear him coming…but in this world of sin…the meek will hear it…the dear Christ enters in. Above the deep and the silent stars go by. That is the message of Christmas. Nobody else may love you but God loves you. Everybody else may have disappointed you but God has not. You can therefore stop the people-pleasing, parent-pleasing, boss- pleasing, image pleasing, cab honking self-aggrandizement that assures everybody else that you are in a bigger hurry than they are and therefore more important than they are. You can go slow or you can go fast. You can stop or you can start. You can treat everything on your to do list today as secondary to the reality that God loves you. You can finally understand the mischief of capitalism, that tries to do IMPORTANT ECONOMIC ACTIVITY outside the realm of God, as though there were any place outside the realm of God, once Emmanuel or God with us has come fully formed from Jesse’s lineage. You can never be too careful of that soul-body spit. That’s how God loved us, by saying there was no split at all, in the first place.

If God loves us expertly, how do we become a little more expert? We can follow the details of the story. Worried about the fiscal cliff? Go for it. Cliff dwellers of the world unite. God’s realm is the economic. God is not outside the economic. These decisions not only matter, they matter to God because God loves people. And people pay taxes. And emperors need help in understanding the true meaning of Jesus, especially when they levy taxes..
Worried about the people in Connecticut and how they will ever get over the absurdity of their loss? They will get there by remembering that God loves them, that God’s own son was murdered, that murder happens when Christmas is distorted into spirituality instead of a fully joyful, fully just reign of God, in a world where everybody knows that God loves them. One reporter so indelicately called the Newtown murders “more than a single digit disaster.” There is a lot of blather about what happened and very little gets to the missing realization that God loves us. People want us to ban guns. Good. People want to improve mental health services. Good. None of these things will do a thing if we don’t hear the song of Christmas that we are loved. That goes to those who might be so desperate or abandoned that they might shoot as well as those whom they shoot.

God loves you, even though what is most precious has been taken away from you. God loves you. God loved your boy or your girl. God loved the principal. That truth remains and you hear the truth of it in the way people are desperate to sing the Christmas carols. Sing them as though they were true, especially since they are. They also drown out the sirens. The more full we are of the truth of God’s love for us, the less air time we have to listen to those who would trick us out of love. The love of God is expert: it puts the inexpert, which includes me and you, out of our tired businesses and into a new kind of business.

The love of God comprehends the big stuff and the little stuff. That’s how big it is. The best word I know for the love of God is that it is Care free as a way of being careful. The love of God is actually the freedom to enter the materialism of Christmas with great vigor and interest. Is regifting moral? I mean, should you do that? And what if the gift you regift goes on to be regifted and even finds its way back to you, eventually? Why aren’t there mitten holders for adults, like there are for children? The kind that snap on to your jacket. All those lonely gloves all over town, on the street. Don’t they make you feel sad? Don’t you just want to gather them all up? What do you really think about those gloves that open up to let you use your cell phone while you are outside? Vice or virtue? How do you spell Chanukah? And does it matter if I don’t know? Should I send the Christmas card by email or by snail mail and how long is the line at the post office to buy stamps? Should I get the secular or the sacred ones, especially now that I have heard this sermon about the distortion of the spiritual and the material? I am a big fan of the materialism of Christmas. It is actually a way to follow the expert love of God.

What is most amazing about the love of God is that the expertise is not hoarded. We too can love like God loved. The goal of life is not to love yourself or even to love others. The goal of life is to love God and enjoy God and trust God. From that seminal trust, many other things can flow. If the word God bothers you, then substitute universe or foundation. Tell yourself that the universe loves you – or watch the sirens kill you. Tell yourself the foundation and font of the universe loves you – or watch the sirens kill you. Bend towards the trust. You will find yourself unafraid in whatever manager you inhabit, no matter how many people surround you, loving you inexpertly. Not that all people are inexpert at love! We are not.
The woman at the Long Island Railroad ticket counter said to me, “You can’t be a senior yet?” with a big smile on her face. She is an expert at love. I said, “I’ll be you say that to all the girls.” She said, “I do. It makes people happy. I love doing that.” What a simple intervention in what must be a long and boring job, selling tickets all day long on the Long Island Railroad. Do you know why I think she makes her joke? Because she loves herself enough to amuse herself and to refuse boredom. Because somebody loved her well enough once upon a time or even now, so that her sense of humor survived the boredom. And because somebody figured out how to tell her to bend towards the joy in the world, even though it has serious competition from the sirens.

I see expert love spreading in Occupy Sandy too. They know that love isn’t charity and that it isn’t just from the government but that love is something you help yourself get. Self-help and mutual aid are the forms love takes during disasters. You have to watch charity and you have to even watch justice. One is too warm and mushy, the other too cold and calculating. Self-help and mutual aid is what the angels and the shepherds exchanged. I watched a 20 something volunteer, wearing a mask, helping a woman in a wheelchair wearing a blanket, outside in the long line. How did she help her? She told her to smile and chat up the people who were standing in line with her. Sure enough, this woman who probably hadn’t been asked to do anything for anybody for a long time came alive. She took her assignment seriously. She gave good talk. She gave encouragement. She showed me how the love of God is also the love of self, which is also the love of each other. I am sure she slept better that night too, in a silent night become holy, where all is calm; all is bright, right in the middle of the moldy walls.

We come to the end of the Christmas story about the material love of God. I want to add one more glimpse, a glimpse about the difference between the pleasure we get from the love of God and the joy we can get. Pleasure and joy are not the same. Writer Zadie Smith says, “I get a lot of pleasure out of life. I don’t think that is because so many wonderful things happen to me but rather that the small things go a long way.” For example I get a lot of satisfaction out of food. I can make a pineapple Popsicle last for 8 minutes… But I have only known joy five times in my life, and each time tried to forget it after it happened, out of the fear that the memory of it would dement and destroy everything else…the first she describes as joy under the influence, the second in romantic love, the third in voicing her dog, the fourth with her husband, the fifth having children.”

Her conclusion about the difference between joy and pleasure is this: “The end of a pleasure brings no great harm to anyone, after all, and can always be replaced with another of more or less equal worth.” The loss of joy permanently damages us, while taking some of us away day by day. The same thing is true about love. Were God not to love us, we would be condemned to the sirens. Because God loves us, we can live, long or short, deeply or shallowly, with impact or without it. We don’t fear smells or hurricanes or mass shooters. Smith concludes,

“It hurts just as much as it is worth. The thing no one ever tells you about joy is that it has very little real pleasure in it. And yet if it hadn’t happened at all, how would we live.”

If God had not chosen to love us, how WOULD we live? Amen.

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