I saw a card while I was picking out birthday cards for my family which said on the front cover: You are my favorite “what if.” Though I am not sure why someone would send such a card, I confess, having just celebrated a reunion of the volunteers whom I worked with in Northern Ireland in ’79 – ’81, it did set my imagination down that road for a while – thinking about some of those ‘what if’ people and ‘what if’ moments of my life.
I suspect all of us have those ‘what if’ moments in our lives. Moments when a choice we make closes off one trajectory of ‘what if’s’ and sets our feet firmly on the path that becomes our life. Turning points which set the course for everything that follows. Some of them are chosen. I chose this college; that degree; this person to take to the prom; that company’s job offer. Others happen to us: This cancer. That company’s closing. This accident! Whether by choice or fate, those turning points set the stage for everything that follows.
Today’s first reading tells the story of one of the bigger turning points in the early church. Paul and Barnabas are on the road, doing their usual thing. They arrive in a city, then they meet with the synagogue leaders. Paul shows them his bona fides as a Pharisee and asks permission to speak. They grant it. And then he preaches to them. And rather successfully, so that many people begin to notice, and not just the Jews. The authorities in power feel threatened and start a persecution, throw Paul and Barnabas out of the synagogues and sometimes the cities. In the mean time, a TON of gentiles come to believe in their message. That pattern is repeated again and again.
It gradually becomes apparent that God was not going to be limited to the borders of religious background any more than He was limited by the borders of geography! So eventually Paul and Barnabas had to change their strategy, and follow the path of the Holy Spirit’s prompting. We hear that turning point this morning: We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. We now turn to the gentiles. What a profound moment in the church.
New Testament scholar, Frank Stagg, points out that these stories in Acts show the Church gradually coming to understand and to embrace this truth: The Gospel cannot and will not be hindered by any man-made boundaries or categories—not race, not gender, not national identity, not religious background, not geographical location, not social-economic status. At each defining moment of the narrative in Acts, the Holy Spirit shows up as a persistent and powerful force drawing the church across any and all boundaries that separate or segment humankind. And so at the very last, with the final sentence Luke uses to close his story of the book of Acts, Paul is shown living and preaching in Rome, welcoming ALL who come to see him, preaching the Gospel unhindered by any constraint. It was a huge turning point in the church.
I like to think that our current Pope is one of those great ‘turning points in the church.” Like every Pope, he brings his gifts to the office. I believe his pastoral and scriptural approaches to discipleship are a huge opportunity and blessing for the church. Fr. James Martin, SJ, in an article in America Magazine, summarized the pope’s encyclical of last week – “The Joy of Love” – into a kind of top ten list. Point #10 says simply: All are welcome.
He writes: “The church must help families of every sort, and people in every state of life, know that, even in their imperfections, they are loved by God and can help others experience that love. Likewise, pastors must work to make people feel welcome in the church. “Amoris Laetitia” offers the vision of a pastoral and merciful church that encourages people to experience the “joy of love.”
So, to quote Men in Black III, this might be my NEW favorite “What if” moment in the church. My new favorite ‘turning point’ in the history of St. Ann church. What if we, the members of St. Ann parish lived with such a welcoming heart, that anyone who comes through our doors would know they are loved by God? What if we made sure that at every mass, we LOOKED for people whom we didn’t recognize, and made sure to introduce ourselves? What if there was only one sign emblazoned on the front of our St. Ann Church—WELCOME, ANYBODY!
That would be a turning point worth living for…