One of the hardest things about being a Christian is the realization that we're continually called to change and to be converted. Yes, God loves us as we are, but God also calls us to be something more. That makes this weekend's readings a bit harder to digest. On first glance, it seems as though God is more interested in us changing others than in our willingness to be changed ourselves. In Ezekiel, we hear that we have a duty to correct the "wicked" ones among us. If the sinner is unwilling to change, some might think the Gospel tells us that they should be expelled from the community.
This theme may repulse us, and for good reason. It is easy to look back through history and observe the ways that these passages can and have been used to justify indefensible actions on the part of the Christian community. Our own church has suffered time and again from self-righteous actors who have gone too far in asserting their authority and have consequently excluded people from participating in the life of our faith.
So how do we make sense of these readings that seem to be telling us that we have a duty to occupy a moral high ground and to draw lines indicating who is in and who is outside of our faith community?
To interpret the Gospel as a guide on how to correct, criticize and exclude seems to miss the larger point of the readings. To view this completely as a commentary on the internal politics of the church ignores the total message of the Gospel. Consider Pope Francis' words:
"The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation [of the Gospel]: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all. ... In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds."
Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.
What does loving one's neighbor look like?
Ezekiel tells us the one who loves his or her neighbor will walk with them the entire way -- even when we think they're wrong. A follower of Jesus must walk with everyone, even with those with whom they disagree, the entire way. Jesus himself is the reconciliation of God with humanity. The Lord's reign ensures that everyone is a child of God and that everyone is redeemed in freedom and in love.
Ezekiel is right: Our salvation is tied up with each other. We must be reconciled with each other, especially to those who are at risk of perishing. If we fail to be reconciled to them, we will be at risk of perishing, too.
And who is perishing around us? And how are they perishing? We all are in some way suffering under the weight of our personal sins. But so many are also perishing under the weight of our societal sins.
God tells us in Genesis that we are our brother's and our sister's keeper. Christians know they are responsible for everyone they encounter. No one is beyond our care.
In the final analysis, the readings are not about excluding the wicked and broken, but about including everyone and reconciling everybody to the love of God that knows no bounds.
In the Gospel, Jesus tells us that we must go as far as possible to invite people into our midst. One attempt isn't enough. No! Christians never grow tired of pursuing their brothers and sisters.
And this radical act of reconciliation isn't just the business of the individuals. It's the work of the entire church. We must constantly strive toward reconciliation with those who have been hurt, excluded or disagree. If we fail to do so, we fail to share the love of God. Jesus tells us that God is present "where two or three are gathered." Where there is reconciliation, there is love, and where there is love, God is alive and the kingdom flourishes.
What does this kingdom look like? It's a place where no one is excluded and no one is left behind. It's a place where the medicine of mercy heals wounds and warms hearts. It's a community where those who govern are "sincere and effective dialogue aimed at healing the deepest roots and not simply the appearances of the evils in our world." It's a place where leaders are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor.
It's a community where the dignity of our work is honored with a just wage that gives people a chance to create and sustain their families, worship God and contribute to the common good. It's a nation where immigrants are welcomed and loved and given the dignity of a name, a face and a future.
Reconciliation isn't just for us, but also for the transformation of our families, our communities, our church, our country and the entire world. The reconciliation of God with humanity gives us a chance to reimagine and reconstruct human life and society once again.
Those reconciled with their neighbors share God's love with our broken world. They work to be collaborators with God's great dreams for a world where everyone is welcomed, loved and forgiven and where every man, woman and child experiences the salvation of Christ here and now.