What’s Your Motivation?

December 26, 2004



What’s Your Motivation? (12/26/04)

Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

There is something about the day after Christmas. There is this inevitable letdown. That’s the way life is. The more we look forward to something, the more difficult it is when that event moves through the lens of experience and slides into that murky place we call memory. Christmas—where did it go? We remember it—it was real—but we can’t go back and visit it. Christmas 2004 will never happen again.

I kept putting off writing this sermon. What do you preach about on the day after Christmas? The lectionary—a list of Bible texts that many ministers use as a guide—suggests the text from Matthew in which Joseph and Mary escape to Egypt to avoid the massacre of infants under King Herod. You remember that story. The wise men had told King Herod that a new king had been born—they were following the star that was a sign of this event. Herod was upset that the wise men had not returned, as promised, to tell him where the child was. So he ordered the death of every child two years old and under all around Bethlehem.
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An angel tells Joseph what is about to happen and Joseph flees to Egypt. Eventually, after Herod dies, an angel again appears to Joseph and tells him he can go back to Israel. But since Herod’s son is in power, Joseph decides to move to a different town. So instead of returning to his home in Bethlehem, he takes his new family to a little town in the north called Nazareth.

And I know some of you are thinking, wait, that’s not right. Mary and Joseph were from Nazareth, and they went to Bethlehem for the census, and Jesus was born in a manger because there was no room at the Inn. Well, that is the story as we find it in Luke. But in Matthew’s birth story, Jesus is born at home, in the city of Bethlehem, and according to the story the family does not live in Nazareth until they return to Israel from Egypt. Let me go back and read the line from Matthew about the wise men finding Jesus:

When the wise men saw the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother.

No trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem; no angels singing in the heavens; no manger; no shepherds. All of that is found in Luke’s story. According to Matthew, an angel tells Joseph his fiancée is bearing the Son of God. Joseph marries her, they set up housekeeping in Bethlehem, and sometime after the birth of Jesus the wise men—it doesn’t say how many wise men there were—appear at the door of their house. Of course, we have taken those two very different stories and combined them. We’ve taken the parts we like from Luke and the parts we like from Matthew and ended up with some truly wonderful lawn decorations. And that’s fine with me. In fact, the manger scene I have in my living room has the wise men and the shepherds standing together around the manger. I’m not throwing stones here. It’s a nice story. It just isn’t in the Bible.

I decided to gloss over the story of the escape to Egypt and the massacre of the infants. Matthew brings that sorry part of the story to a close by reciting a lamentation by the prophet Jeremiah, written 800 years earlier. Matthew uses Jeremiah’s words to reveal the grief of all the mothers of the children who are murdered as Herod tries to make sure Jesus is killed. Jeremiah was lamenting the exile of the 10 tribes of Israel to Assyria in the year 722 B.C. But it was a fitting lament for the grieving mothers. It reads,

A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

She refused to be consoled, because they are no more.

But that’s enough of that. I’m not ready to surrender the Christmas spirit to King Herod. It isn’t difficult to understand why King Herod did that horrible thing involving the children of Bethlehem. He was in power, and wanted to stay there. There was no room for a new king who would seek a new kind of allegiance. From the beginning of recorded history right through the present moment, political leaders have been willing to bring about the death of innocent people—including children—in order to either seize or maintain power.

And religion doesn’t really have a lot to do with it, except some leaders are more adept than others at using religion as an excuse for their brutality. The leaders who ordered those terrorists to fly those planes into the World Trade Center told the hijackers to be sure and say their prayers beforehand. But I doubt if those leaders were truly motivated by any sort of real faith.

And that’s the subject for this morning: motivation! I think motivation is about the most important thing in a human being’s life. We are defined—we define ourselves—by the things that motivate us.

I think one of the special things about a successful marriage is that there are no hidden motivations. Each partner knows what is driving the other. And hopefully a commitment to mutual self-interest, tempered with some compassion for all of humanity, eventually leads two people to a point of complete and unconditional trust. And we only trust another person when we are confident we understand their motivation. True in marriage, true in business, true in life.

Movie and stage directors are always asking their actors, “What’s your motivation,” or, “Remember your motivation!” You can’t act like a particular character unless you understand what it is that drives that character—what makes him tick. And in real life, it is only when you understand a person’s motivation that you understand that person.

Shakespeare famously said,

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts

He goes on to speak of the seven ages of a human being, beginning with the infant, mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms, to the last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, a second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

In between there is everything from the schoolboy to the soldier, but each plays his part. What interests me about all these stages of life is the continuity of character along the way. There is something inside of us that makes us who we are, and it doesn’t change much over the course of a lifetime.

When I go back to my high school reunions, I see people I’ve known since first grade. And they are the same person they were then! Let’s think about that. Their cells have died and been replaced countless times; they have had millions upon millions of life experiences; they have hopefully read hundreds of books and had many years of education; and yet, after all that living, Hugo from first grade is still Hugo! It’s the same guy! There is something going on inside that body that doesn’t change very much—something that makes Hugo Hugo.

In many ways, we seem to be born who we are. Children raised in the same way, by the same parents, who go through the same life experiences, can grow up very different people. We seem to begin life with something—somebody—real already inside of us. And the way we are born is God’s gift to us. But the way we live our lives is our gift back to God. Because Hugo from the first grade took his character, his personhood, his soul, and he built a life around it. And he is still Hugo whether he ended up serving time in prison for robbing a convenience store or whether he became president of a fortune 500 Company; whether he spends his days playing computer games and smoking pot or whether he is a daily volunteer at the homeless shelter.

That’s still Hugo. But each of those potential Hugo’s evolved from the same character, the same genes, the same experiences. The difference was motivation. What motivates Hugo to choose a particular path?

Well, let’s get past Hugo, my fictional first grade friend, and talk about something more real—like you and me. We may not get to choose the essence of who we are, but in many ways we do get to choose the things that motivate us. First, let me say that the fact we are here this morning says a great deal about what motivates us in life. We do not have to be here. We could be sleeping. We could be watching television. We could be playing golf (if we are hearty enough and have enough fondness for the game to brave this weather!)

But we are here. We came to church. What is our motivation? I don’t think anybody came here today out of pure self-interest. It’s not like we think we will land that big business deal next week if only we are seen walking into University Congregational Church this morning. We are not here for selfish reasons.

I suppose we could analyze it from a psychological perspective and say we are meeting one of our basic needs—the love need, or the group need. You’ve probably all seen Maslow’s hierarchy of needs somewhere along the way. There are five levels of human need, and when you satisfy one, you are able to move on to the next. It is a ladder, and the bottom rung is the physiological need, or survival need. This is the human need for air, water, food, sleep—all of those pesky little things we need to keep these bodies of flesh and blood alive.

Americans don’t have much of a problem with that level of need, but there are significant numbers of people in the next level—on the second rung of the ladder: the safety level, or security level. Simply put, once you know you are going to survive for the next few days, it is nice to secure your long range future. It is comforting to have a regular job, a home to live in, and a steady supply of food. Over half the people in this world are living in the first level, trying to survive, or on the fringes of the second level—hoping to secure their long range survival.

The third level is the love level, or the group level. Once we have secured our survival, human beings need friends. We get to know our neighbors, we join clubs. In the slums of our cities the youth join gangs for this reason—the need to belong. And some would say that is why people go to church, but I think they are wrong. We’ll come back to that in a minute.

The fourth level is the esteem level, or ego level. This is where you want to be acknowledged for who you are and what you accomplish. You want to win the salesman of the year award. You want your picture in the paper for accomplishing something great. This is the natural human need that comes after one feels comfortable as a part of a group. And finally, there is the fifth and final level of need, the ultimate rung on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: self fulfillment. This is the level where the only motivation is inside. You aren’t motivated by what other people think. You aren’t motivated by money. You aren’t motivated by accolades. You aren’t motivated by power. You are motivated by something inside, and the glory is in the doing, not in the reward. The joy is in the work, not the compensation for your labor.

As much as I admire psychology, and as useful and valid as I’ve found Maslow’s hierarchy of needs over the years, I just don’t think the fact we are here on the morning of December 26th fits anywhere on that ladder. But I think I know what motivates us to come to this place of worship on the day after Christmas. I think I know why we forego the extra sleep and the television and the golf games to come to this place week after week. It is because we are the type of people who just can’t let go of Christmas. We are motivated by the love, the compassion, the smiles, the laughter, the joy—all the things that make the Christmas season stand out above the rest of the year.

We are motivated by the spirit of the season to keep the season alive—to keep the spirit alive. It may be the day after Christmas, but we don’t want to talk about King Herod’s massacre of the infants. Our world is full of King Herods who would take our joy and turn it into despair. Our world is full of people who would take the swords we try to beat into plowshares and re-forge them as weapons. Our world is full of people whose love and compassion for the poor and hungry of our community and of our world makes a brief appearance in the weeks before Christmas and then lies dormant for another year.

They can’t have the season back, not just yet. And that’s our motivation. We will keep the spirit of the season alive. We will keep the spirit of Christ alive. And that is the most important job in the world.

We live in a frightening time when it comes to keeping the spirit of Christ alive. We have churches all over America that preach and teach the politics of hatred. We have large segments of the church that would turn American Christianity into a version of the Afghanistan Taliban—religious fanatics, dedicated to a political agenda. We have millions upon millions of Christians who believe the only way Christ will come into this world again is by floating through the air from heaven above, with a sword in his mouth and vengeance in his heart.

What happened? What is happening? The spirit of Christ comes into this world every time a human being opens his or her heart to the love of God and realizes that there is no vengeance in the heart of God; only sorrow at our hatefulness. There is no anger in the Eternal Spirit who called creation into being in the first place and sustains it moment to moment with a love we can only begin to understand; only mercy. And there is no avenue for Christ to enter this beautiful but hurting world except through the hearts of those of us who are motivated to keep the spirit of Christ alive in this world.

It really is an important job. But we are up to the task. So as we walk together into a new year, may we draw from one another the courage to stand against those who would prey on the weak, the faith to know that God is with us always as we journey through our days, and the love—the love of God, the love of humanity, the love of all creation—to keep the spirit of Christ, the spirit of the Christmas season, alive and well throughout the year.