6th Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 14:15-21;
Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:13-22
LIVING BY LOVE IN A REWARD-PUNISHMENT WORLD
Jesus talked a great deal about love in the bible. He also talked about obeying him by loving him and loving one another. Now, here’s the tricky thing. Love and obey go together for Jesus in two senses. We obey him by loving others; that’s how we do it. But we also obey Jesus through Jesus’ power of love that he gives us. We obey by loving because Jesus loves us and we him; that’s why we obey. In other words, it’s all about love. Love is not only how we obey Jesus but it’s also why we obey Jesus.
Here’s what I mean. Pretend there’s a mother with three children. One day Mom had to leave the house to run an important errand. She left some chocolate chip cookies in a container in the kitchen with specific instructions for the children not to eat any of them; because she needed to take them to friends whose grandma just died. I am pleased to tell you that all of the children obeyed their mother and left the cookies alone. The children, however, had their own reasons for obeying their mother’s request. Let’s check with each child to find out what those reasons were.
First, Amy. Amy could be called “Repay me Amy.” Amy, why didn’t you have any cookies? (First child reads.) “Well, I figured that if I did what Mom asked she might reward me for being so good. She might give me some money or some of those cookies.” Why did Amy obey? Because she thought she would get a reward.
Next, we have Brady. We could call him “Fraidy Brady.” Brady, why didn’t you eat any of those cookies? (Second child reads.) “It’s not because I didn’t want any — I love cookies. I was afraid that if I had a cookie or two (maybe three), Mom would punish me. She would probably do something to punish me, like make me clean my room.” Why did Brady obey? Because he was afraid of being punished. He obeyed out of fear.
Finally, we have Sue. We could refer to her as “True-blue Sue.” Sue, why didn’t you eat any of the cookies? Were you afraid you might be punished, or hopeful you might be rewarded? (Third child reads.) “No, I love my mom. She told us not to eat the cookies. I love her and want to please her, so I did as she asked.” Sue did what she did out of love.
All three of the children obeyed. How they obeyed was by not eating the cookies as Mom asked. But why they obeyed was really different. Which child had the best reason, do you think? (Responses.) That’s right, Sue. She did it as a response to her love for her mother, not because she was afraid of punishment or wanted to get a reward. This is exactly the same kind of love that Jesus not only wants us to give him, but he also gives it to us first so that we can share it. Let’s pray: Dear Jesus, thank you for loving us, so that we can love you. Help us to obey you by loving one another. Amen
Let’s think about our own lives for a moment. How much of the time, in our daily lives, are we most immediately motivated by reward and punishment? How much of the time by love?
If I’m honest with myself, I’d have to say that most of the time, I’m operating with a voice of reward and punishment in the foreground, a voice seeking positive outcomes and avoidance of negative ones. Sure, there is hopefully God’s gift of covenant love in the background, as the foundation of my motivation. I love Ellen and our boys, I love my Prince of Peace family. I love my country. Those covenant loves are the grounding motivation, in the background of what I do.
But I’m not sure about the foreground. That daily voice in my head. Even in our closest relationships, our love gets shaped by reward and punishment, by how we react to one another. Did you notice in Sue’s response about obeying her Mom? She wanted to please her mother. We do things because we want the people we love to react positively. And if they react negatively, don’t we feel punished? Do you see what I mean? Do you see how much reward and punishment, positive and negative consequences, provides the immediate motivation for what we do in our daily lives?
There are exceptional times. When we first fall in love, right? So much of what we do becomes directly motivated by this wonderful feeling of being in love. But the honeymoon does wear off when we get into the daily grind and challenges of life, and we return to covenant love as the important background motivation, with the daily ups and downs of positive and negative responses in the foreground.
I think this love vs. punishment/reward reality is most obvious with the experience of having children. When our children are born and are infants, there is a fresh love unmotivated by anything that tiny child does. The fact that they exist is wonder and love enough. But when the time comes that they begin to resist your love and test their boundaries, then the reward and punishment thing begins to kick in again big-time, right? It is a reward and punishment world, and we have to teach our kids to live in it.
I’m fortunate to work as a pastor in a job where love is more often part of the motivation. I get to share many of those exceptional times with you — good times, like weddings, birth, and celebrations of milestones. But there’s also the hard times of illness and death, times when reward and punishment don’t seem to make any sense, and we are thrown back into love as our motivation for going on.
But I had my pastoral evaluation with the Executive Committee this week, and guess what? We didn’t talk much about love, though I did feel like the process was in loving support of me as a pastor. I’m very grateful for that. But much of my work as a pastor is also evaluated with reward and punishment in mind, with positive and negative outcomes as the motivating factors. We live in a world of reward and punishment.
When I say it’s a reward and punishment world, it brings us again to the bigger picture of our human nature, with how things evolved for us since the beginning of our species. We were formed for millennia by gods of punishment and reward, curse and blessing. These are the gods we hope are on our side to reward us, while punishing our enemies. These gods are deep down in our everyday thinking. They are also the gods which shape the cultures which form our thinking.
In most cultures prior to ours, these gods give the order of keeping everyone in their place. Its what we see in a time as recently as the PBS show Downtown Abbey, set in early 20th Century England, where the old way is that everyone knows there place. If God made you to be a cook, you don’t aspire to be higher than a cook. All your life the voice in your head revolves around being a good cook for some Lord or Lady. In antiracism work, we talk about People of Color having to battle internalized inferiority, the cultural embedded voice in their heads that tells them they are an inferior race. Getting at the culturally embedded voice of being superior and privileged, can be an even tougher nut to crack for white people. Why would we want to question a voice that tells us we’re better, more deserving?
Do you see how these gods of reward and punishment, blessing and curse, even get deep within the cultural voices which form us?
[ending was extemporized]
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, May 25, 2014