Christ Lutheran Community Church

Upper Darby

Christ Lutheran Community Church

February 24, 2019 Worship Sermon - "Be Merciful"

Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser


Genesis 45:3-11, 15, Psalm 37:1-11, 39-4,  1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50, Luke 6:27-38

In the news over the past week, there has been quite a bit of saber-rattling between the United States and Russia.  It’s possible that a new arms race is beginning.  The United States has threatened to install nuclear missiles in Eastern Europe; and Russia has responded by threatening to install hypersonic missiles on submarines off the coast of the United States.  And all of us are wondering how far this dangerous back and forth will go.

This talk of a renewed arms race has reminded some people of the Cuban Missile Crisis back in 1962.  At that time, the Soviet Union began installing nuclear missiles in Cuba, which would make it possible for them to lunch a devastating attack on the United States in a matter of minutes.  What we Americans sometimes forget is that this move on the part of the Soviets was in response to the United States installing nuclear missiles in Turkey and Italy.  President Kennedy was forced to respond to the missiles in Cuba and for a few days there was a real possibility that an attack on Cuba would trigger all out nuclear war and devastation such as our world has never seen.  Fortunately, the Soviet Union backed down from its plans and began dismantling the missiles.  Nuclear war was narrowly avoided. 

The Cuban Missile Crisis inspired a mathematician named Robert Axelrod to wrestle with one of life’s great ethical questions: is retaliation a good strategy?  If someone punches me, should I punch them back?  In the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis, that kind of tit for tat response brought us to the brink of Armageddon.  As Mahatma Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye and the whole world goes blind.”  But on the other hand, if we don’t respond to evil with the threat of revenge, won’t evil win out?  The good people will keep giving and giving while the bad people keep taking and taking and eventually the good people will run out of resources and die off while the bad people will prosper. 

Robert Axelrod decided to come up with a computer program to figure out the answer to this question about revenge and retaliation.  He created several different computer characters and gave each of them a different strategy for responding to other characters.  One of the computer characters he called Jesus and this character always cooperated; it never retaliated even if another character was attacking it.  In other words, it did what Jesus tells us to do in our Gospel reading this morning.  Another of the computer characters was called Lucifer and this character never cooperated; it always attacked even if the other character was being nice.  Then there was a computer character called Tit for Tat.  It would always start out by cooperating and would continue to do so until it came under attack, at which point it would respond to evil with evil.  Then there were several variations on these models. 

After allowing these computer characters to interact with each other over several generations, Axelrod came up with some interesting results.  If the world were just filled with Jesuses, everything would be wonderful: all the characters would cooperate and multiply and there would be bliss.  A world that was populated by Lucifers, on the other hand, wouldn’t survive beyond one generation.  One would attack the other; the other would attack back; and that would keep going until there was utter destruction.  If you populated the world with Jesuses and Lucifers, it didn’t work out so well.  The Lucifers would keep attacking the Jesuses until they were all gone and then they would destroy all the other Lucifers. The Tit for Tat character did fine if it was paired up against Jesus; but if you paired it up against Lucifer, everything ended up bad. 

The most successful computer character ended up being a character called Generous Tit for Tat.  Generous Tit for Tat would start out cooperating.  If another character attacked it, it would usually retaliate; but every once in a while, it would forgive and respond to evil with good.  Generous Tit for Tat survived and multiplied and could even overcome the presence of Lucifers in the world because by occasionally forgiving it could interrupt the destructive cycle of retaliation. 

I guess what I take away from this in light of what Jesus says in our gospel reading this morning is that Jesus came to inject generosity into a world of tit for tat, generosity that the world needs to survive.  On the cross, Jesus offered words of forgiveness.  Those words of forgiveness have come down to us so that we can offer them to each other.

In our world, it is necessary for evil be restrained and sometimes it can only be restrained by a countervailing evil.  If I go into the parking lot and see someone trying to steal my car, I probably not going to give him my keys; I’m going to call the cops.  I’m not going to do this because I need my revenge.  I’m going to do it because I live in a world of laws and I need my car to visit homebound parishioners.  But sometimes God calls us to take the higher road, to give and to forgive, even when we think the other person doesn’t deserve it.  When we do offer that forgiveness, we are channeling the forgiveness of Christ.