Running, arms wide open.
I love New York. Always have, always will. When I have lived elsewhere, those places are always measured against the standard of New York City, and I have to tell you, nothing comes close. Some people don’t understand it, my love for the city, even some people who live here. But especially people from the heartland, from mid-America, from the Midwest. While they may enjoy visiting and seeing the sights, many would never want to live here. They find the place too unfriendly, too harsh, too fast. Meaning they think that we are hard-hearted, mad-looking, discourteous and rude. I understand the reason for that reaction. I think it’s easy to see all of us that way. We’re busy, there’s a lot we are dealing with, and when we’re little we’re taught not to smile too much at strangers, not to trust people too easily. And when we perceive that someone disrespects us, or has in some other way offended us, well sometimes we do exhibit some aggressive behavior, road and parking lot and checkout line rage. “I’m walking here, I’m walking hereeeeeeee!”
In the Midwest, and in the South, people actually are pretty polite to one another, even strangers, and you’d be surprised how many people smile at you as you pass them on the sidewalk, say hello to you for no good reason at all except to be friendly. They even ask for your forgiveness a lot. Here’s an example.
Years ago, I was at a small dinner gathering in the dormitory apartment of a Jesuit friend of mine at Georgetown University. There were five of us, and I sat across from Bill Clinton, who was a mere governor then of the small state of Arkansas and a very remote choice to become a future president. It was a pleasant evening, with some talk of politics, but mostly conversation and tales about the school of which we were both alumni.
At one point when several conversations were taking place simultaneously around the table, I asked him a question—I can’t recall now what it was about—but he couldn’t hear me. Even then he had a hearing problem in one or both of his ears (he wears hearing aids now). He leaned over the table towards me and said, “Sorry?” For me it was an odd sounding phrase to use in such a situation, but it instantly reminded me of a childhood friend, Billy Candler, who was also from the South, and who also used the same polite one-word phrase when he had misheard something that was said to him. I concluded that night that it was a southern thing, and that it went along with other such southern polite-isms like ‘Yes M’am’ and ‘No M’am’ and ‘Thank you kindly’.
I mean, we can be forgiving at times too.
My own mother, a native New Yorker: if my mother didn't hear something you said to her, or maybe couldn't believe her ears at what was said to her, she'd always ask, "I beg your pardon?". My mama was a lady, and so she'd never say "WHAATTT?" in that kind of a situation, but it's an interesting phrase that we use, you know--'I BEG your PARDON". It conjures up an image of someone on their knees, hands together, pleading for their life to a judge or an executioner.
One of my favorite films is an oldie, a movie called ‘A Thousand Clowns’, about a guy who is quite a character, a New Yorker, who has kind of messed up his life. He needs to ask forgiveness of the woman he loves and the nephew he adores, but he can’t quite screw up the courage. So he goes out to a busy street corner in Manhattan in the middle of the day, and begins randomly apologizing to anyone walking past him. "I'm very sorry, sir," "Forgive me, Madam,", "I beg your pardon," "Sorry, buddy", “Oh, I’m so sorry, sir”. Later on he recalls to someone what happened: “It was amazing!…Some people just gave me a funny look, but…I swear, seventy five percent of them forgave me…’That’s OK, really’, ‘Don’t worry about it, guy’, ‘No problem’…Oh, it was fabulous. I had tapped some vast reservoir…I simply said to them, ‘I am sorry’, and they were all so generous, so kind…”.
It was a pretty funny scene in the movie, and it made me wonder about it, and I even conducted a similar test myself once, on the streets of New York, with a similar result. Some people looked at me like I was a nut, or ignored me all together, but most uttered some form of forgiveness. And I concluded that, at least in public, we're actually much more forgiving than is our reputation in the rest of the country and even the world.
15 years ago today, right around this time, I watched the attack on the World Trade Center live on television, along with millions of other people. The first image I saw was of the faint smoke coming out of the first tower after what appeared to be a small plane crash into the building. A few minutes later, I watched the second jet slam into the other tower, and shortly thereafter, I saw both buildings collapse and disintegrate into the ground.
The whole thing was so hard to believe. As I watched the attack on the towers on my TV, I had two simultaneous reactions—sorrow and tears, and very very strong anger.
Only a week before I had been in a helicopter that was filming the city, and we had circled the towers so close up that I was able to see the people working inside the offices. And at one point we just hovered over the center of Manhattan, just sitting there in the air, and I could literally see the whole city from that God-view vantage point: there, the Bronx, there Queens, and flowing right into it, Brooklyn, and over to the right, the island of Staten, and of course Manhattan right below us. That God’s eye view inspired me deeply in weeks after the attack—to think of us all together, all of us united in our shock and our grief and our desire to help one another. One city, one people. And seeing the bridges and tunnels that knitted us geographically together I was inspired to write a screenplay called Bridges and Tunnels about a group of diverse people from every borough who are forced to see each other as one family.
But there were other feelings that came out of that tragedy. Resentment, anger, rage. And maybe the most powerful: a desire for revenge. And it felt good to go after them. And of course when we did, it didn’t exactly turn out how we hoped it would. For us hard New Yorkers, of all people, we would be expected to seek revenge, and to forgo forgiveness. And even now, 15 years later in the midst of a presidential campaign, the wounds are still tender, the heartache lingering, the mistrust high. It’s pretty hard to be forgiving, especially if it appears that there is no remorse or sorrow or regret or contrition. Are we supposed to forgive people who have gone out of their way to kill us? How could anyone really bring themselves to forgive that?
But sometimes it’s just as hard to truly forgive even the people we know and love. There was a line from another movie years ago which kind of caught on for awhile--'Love means never having to say you're sorry", and I guess the implication of it was that you never really have to apologize, beg the pardon of, say you're sorry to the ones who are closest to you--your wife or husband, brother or sister, mother or father, relative or close friend. If you love someone, they're supposed to understand in love, and forgive in love, and so you never have to say you're sorry. My father was sort of like that—I can’t recall a single time when he actually said the words, “I’m sorry”, for anything he did out of anger or mistake. He would come around and maybe show his sorrow in another way—very indirectly—but never the words, never a direct acknowledgment of wrongdoing. And I might add, I was never very good at forgiving him.
Today’s Gospel obviously has something to say about all this. It seems to be giving us a different line: “Love means always saying--‘you're forgiven'”. The father in the story, that old man who could barely walk, who was so disrespected by his prodigal--excessive, wasteful, spendthrift, ungrateful son--that old man didn’t turn him away with a hardened, revengeful heart. He went running to the kid the moment he saw him coming back down the road, arthritic knees, bad heart and all. It should have been the other way around, but 'love means always saying ‘you're forgiven',” and tears in his eyes, that old man ran to his son out of forgiving love.
Why is it so hard to forgive the people we love, and why is it so hard to beg them for forgiveness? "I'm sorry," "I'm so very sorry,". "That's O.K., forget about it," "I understand, no problem". It's pretty easy to beg forgiveness when you obstruct someone’s way in the aisles of Stop and Shop, and it’s easy to grant it. But sometimes it seems impossible to do either with someone we love. Think about it. To whom in your life today, to whom do you really need to say, ‘I'm sorry, I'm so so sorry’ for what I did or didn't do or what I did or didn't say? On this beautiful Sunday, who do you need to forgive--maybe for something that was said or done a long time ago?
I can think of quite a few people who deserve a really good apology from me, and I've been nursing a few good hurts from those among my family and friends--to whom I should go running in forgiveness. I think I have a harder time forgiving those who hurt me than apologizing to those I've hurt, and I'm struggling to find a way to get over it. It's really hard to do.
It's hard to do because of one simple fact that you and I have not truly grasped: we don't really believe how much we are loved by the One who created us. The fact is that we are always resting in the bosom of God's love--even in the best of times, even in the worst of times: God loves every single fiber of our being, every little imperfection, every quirk, everything about us God loves. But we don't really believe it. If we really believed it, we would have no problem asking for forgiveness from our imperfect brothers and sisters; if we believed it, we would have even less of a problem forgiving them as well.
Like Jesus, who was the Prodigal Son in another sense. If to be prodigal means being excessive, immoderate, extravagant and wasteful, then Jesus was the Prodigal Son because he squandered his love on the very people who most needed it--sinners like ourselves, the very people the Pharisees were complaining about when they criticized him for eating with them. Jesus was prodigal with his love on people like us--all the way to the cross. And he was able to forgive even his torturers because he knew how much the Father and Creator loved him. Jesus is the example for us of how to forgive strangers and the ones we love most. I’m not saying it’s easy. And I’m still not sure how to apply this to the anniversary we are remembering today.
But I do know this. Here we are, on the street corner of our lives, God the Father, Jesus the Son and Holy Spirit surrounding us, loving each one of us, no matter, no matter what. I’m sorry, we say….we say I’m sorry….we say we are really really sorry…I’m very sorry…I beg your pardon, my apologies…for all the ways in which I have failed to love everyone and everything…and Jesus, the Father and the Spirit come running, arms open wide, running running to wrap us up in the love that satisfies like nothing else in our lives, and we are safe, and content, and free.