Jesus’ Hardest Teaching?
Where do you start? This is just such a remarkable gospel reading. It turns everything upside down. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. Wow. Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Yikes. There's no question in my mind. This is Jesus's hardest teaching of all. And Jack understood that well. He was born in Cairo, Georgia. His dad abandoned the family, and his mother moved them to Los Angeles when he was just a little baby. He worked, he studied, he played hard. He had a work ethic that just wouldn't stop. And he put himself through community college and then on to UCLA, trying to create a future that was bolder than his past. Jack joined the military, and he struggled to convince the leaders there to judge him by the content of his character, rather than by the color of his skin. But the phone call would come in 1945. Jack got a phone call from a man in New York, Mr. Rickey. Mr. Rickey called and said, “I'm looking for a man with, "guts enough not to fight back.” Jack was a fighter. He was a proud man who was willing to defend himself and his honor. But he signed the contract only on the condition that he had, "guts enough not to fight back.” Because he and Mr. Rickey knew that was the only way for the first black player to succeed in the major leagues. And his experiment began in the minor leagues in Montreal. The pilot project in the minor leagues to find out if you really did have guts enough not to fight back. The following year, Jack went on to Brooklyn. The first black man ever to take the field for a major league team. And when it was announced, teammates actually asked to be traded. And three of them were. Pitchers threw at his head. Hotels refused to house him. Restaurants refused to serve him so that he usually had to eat in the car or on the bus by himself. The opposing teams threatened to strike if he played at their park. Spikes flew high, insults were daily, hate mail arrived. One opponent held up a black card that said, "Hey, Robinson, here's one of your cousins." One opponent held up a black cat and said, "Hey, Robinson, here's one of your cousins."
But Jackie never lost his cool. He never struck back. He looked hate in the eye, and he never blinked. For an entire year, he demonstrated that he had guts enough not to fight back. In 1947, Jackie Robinson became the rookie of the year. But more importantly, the world changed. Because of his faith in Jesus, because of his courage and his boldness, Jackie Robinson set the stage for making black folks full and equal members of this nation, even when it cost him a great deal personally. There's just no question in my mind, this is Jesus's hardest teaching, don't you think? Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. In fact, Jesus says that we Christians are called to stand out for our remarkable capacity to love people who hate us, to forgive people who hurt us, to offer Grace and mercy to a hurting and broken world. We're called to be different. In the face of hatred, Christians love. This is no empty-headed condoning of people who hurt us, to look into the eyes of somebody who hurts you and to be able to say, I love you anyway. What you've done is wrong. But I choose not to retaliate, not to hate. I love you anyway. That's great spiritual strength, that's maturity.
I'll have a new book coming out soon, another book on forgiveness, and I wrote it mostly for myself because I'm inspired by a woman named Leonella Sgorbati. Try saying her name out loud. It's hard to pronounce. Leonella Sgorbati. But I hope to become like her. Leonella spent 38 years in Africa serving God humbly and loving people generously, just a little bit each day, even when it was tedious, even when she didn't want to. Leonella served as the leader of the Consolata Missionary Sisters in Kenya, and after that, she founded a nursing school in Somalia. Her dream was to provide health services and career options to young people there to try to prevent them from joining terrorist groups like Al-Shabaab. Wonderfully, in 2006, her nursing school's first students graduated. Sister Leonella deeply believed that giving a chance to young people, offering them something different, would move them to lay down their weapons. In fact, she said, "I know I could be risking my own life, but I will do it for love." Love means you're willing to inconvenience yourself on behalf of somebody else. And that's exactly what Sister Leonella Sgorbati did. She knew that where there is fear, love withers. At the same time, she faced the very real challenge of the Islamic rules in Somalia. One hardline Somali cleric there told the worshippers at his mosque, "Whoever offends our Prophet Muhammad should be killed on the spot by the nearest Muslim."
And that's when the troubles began. And so it was on Sunday, September 17, 2006, about midnight, Sister Leonella was crossing the road from the children's hospital to enter the village where she and five of her Consolata sisters lived. That little crossing is just 30 feet long, 10 yards. Two assailants waited, hiding behind the taxis and kiosks at the entrance of the hospital. Ambush. Sister Leonella was shot first in the thigh. When her security guard fired back, the Islamists shot and killed him. Her bodyguard, Mohamed Osman Mahamud, a Muslim father of four, died on the spot. Gunfire then hit Leonella with two additional bullets, one of which severed her femoral artery, causing a massive hemorrhage. Her sisters took her quickly for medical help, and they surrounded her with love all the way to the end. As she was preparing to die, Sister Leonella Sgorbati spoke her final words in her native Italian, perdono, perdono. In English, I forgive, I forgive. Sister Leonella had been fully aware of the danger that was around her. She said, "I know there's a bullet with my name on it. I don't know when it's going to arrive, but as long as it doesn't, I'm staying here. I can't be afraid and at the same time, love. I choose to love." She didn't get discouraged. She knew that God wanted her in Somalia and nothing could stop her devotion to the mission. She dedicated herself completely, sparing no effort to establish that school of nursing. To give hope in a future to a country ravaged by war.
After her death, the United Nations helped move her body and they evacuated the other Consolata sisters from Somalia back to Kenya. The sisters buried her in Nairobi and her body can still be found there now in the Flora Hostel Chapel. Remembering her, Pope Benedict the 16th said, "This sister who for many years served the poor and the children in Somalia died pronouncing the word forgive. This shows the victory of love over hatred and evil." He's right. Those who opposed her never had a chance. Love triumphs. She had been practicing love each day for 38 years in dangerous settings in Africa, giving medicine to a woman, food to a child, health care to a man. A little at a time. A little bit each day. Her love for God and the Somali people conquered any fear. And in the end, her heart was transformed into something beautiful. A shrine of love. Practice forgiveness each day and then watch as slowly you become the person you desire to be. Better yet, you'll become who God wants you to be. The best version of yourself. Don't delay. Today is your day.