Everyone has heard of Jesse Owens, famous for winning four gold medals in the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Not so many of us, though, have heard of Lutz Long. Lutz was one of Germany’s top athletes in the 1936 games and one of Adolph Hitler’s favorites. In the long jump trials, Lutz broke the Olympic record. There was only one man who could possibly beat him – Jesse Owens.
Just before Jesse’s turn to qualify, Hitler infamously left his box and walked out of the games. This was viewed as a snub of the black athlete who didn’t fit into Hitler’s white supremist ideal. Jesse spoke of how that moment made him feel. “It made me mad. As man as anyone can be. Then, I fouled on my first try and didn’t jump far enough to qualify on my second. With only one try left, I began to panic.”
But, then, Jesse felt a hand on his shoulder and he looked over only to see that it belonged to Lutz Long. Lutz suggested that Jesse draw a line a few inches short of the takeoff board and jump from there. And it worked. Jesse qualified by a foot.
That moment of unexpected kindness sparked the beginning
In the days ahead, Jesse won three gold medals – the 100 meter and 200 meter dashes and the relay – with Lutz cheering him on at every event. Then came the long jump finals pitting Jesse against Lutz. Again, Jesse won. He later recalled what happened next, “While Hitler glared, Lutz held up my hand and shouted to the gigantic crowd, ‘Jes-se Ow-ens! Jes-se Ow-ens!’ Then the stadium picked up the chant ‘Jes-se Ow-ens! Jes-se Ow-ens!’ My hair stood on end.”
Ordinarily athletes don’t help their opponents, but Lutz Long was no ordinary athlete. He showed Jesse an heroic kindness that was truly miraculous giving the situation they were both in. Ordinarily athletes don’t celebrate an opponent’s victory. But Lutz Long was no ordinary athlete. He rejoiced in Jesse’s achievement.
All of this speaks to us about the passage from the Sermon on the Mount that we heard proclaimed from Matthew’s Gospel today. Jesus today is reminding us that we too are called to offer acts of heroic kindness each and every day. He reminds us of the incredible power that showing kindness can have in our lives and in our world. Jesus urged His followers to show kindness to one another, even to the point of “turning the other cheek” when someone treated them unkindly. He warns those who treat others with anger, “You have heard that it was said…’Whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” Jesus lived this message Himself showing kindness to sinners, compassion to the sick, mercy to His enemies. And so should we.
Kindness blesses the person to whom we are kind and it also blesses us when we extend that kindness. The actor Michael Landon, who starred in shows like Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, and Highway to Heaven, told a story about his first paying job as an actor. He was just 19 years-old and just been paid $260 for his work. He said, “I felt so rich and famous that I decided to go to Beverly Hills and look at the fancy store windows.” At a toy store he saw two young boys with their noses pressed against the glass looking at the toys inside. Landon asked the boys which toys they liked best. One pointed to a wagon, the other to a model airplane. He took them inside the store and bought the toys for them. The boys were beside themselves with joy. What surprised Landon most was the thrill that he got from this simple act of kindness. “It was deeper and more satisfying than anything I had experienced before, and it has stayed with me my whole life,” he said.
My friends, today’s readings invite us to take a look at our own lives and our love and to ask ourselves how they compare to the life and love that Jesus calls us to in the Sermon on the Mount. The invite us to ask ourselves what would happen in our world and in our lives if the energy we expend on anger, or even apathy, were instead expended on kindness? How would our lives and those around us change if we embraced kindness as our mission and our daily focus? What would our nation look like if we each spent every day striving to make America kind again?
In the final analysis, kindness is a power greater than any other on earth. And it is not the resource of a single person or a single nation. It is a resource that is at the disposal of every person in every nation; at the disposal of each and every one of us here today. What’s more, it has no limit. In fact, the more kindness that we give, the more there is to receive.
When we feel the desire to respond to the challenges of our world with anger or even hatred, let’s remember Lutz Long and face that anger with heroic kindness. Let us remember Michael Landon and how much a very small act can change lives. Let us live the lives of extraordinary kindness that Jesus Himself lived and that He calls forth from each one of us, His followers. Let us engage in random acts of kindness as though it were the only thing we were called to do.
Let me end with the Prayer of St. Francis, which exemplifies the lives of kindness that we are called to live: