Pope Francis is coming to Washington this month, and his visits will range from the White House to a homeless shelter. Although I am a Presbyterian pastor and don't pledge obedience to the pope, I am a fan of Francis. He knows, in the words of Scripture, that God has "chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith" (James 2:5).
The pope will meet first with President Obama, then celebrate a mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Washington's cardinal expects that the pope will focus on work being done "in response to the needs of the poor." There will not be, as David Letterman predicted, a "Pope Francis Bobblehead Night."
Then the pope will address a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill -- the first time a pope has done so. He will do this as a spiritual leader, not a political leader. The cardinal says that he will be "speaking to the hearts of people," focusing on their relationships with God and with each other.
Then, he'll visit a branch of Catholic Charities and meet with homeless people, an act that will encourage us not to lose sight of the poor. The pope's visit is intended to inspire us all to help those in need.
Pope Francis knows the "royal law" quoted in the New Testament letter of James: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (2:8). What a simple law this is, but one that is so hard for us to follow. Loving your neighbor means that you don't show partiality, giving better treatment to a rich person than to a poor person. Loving your neighbor means giving food to the hungry, and not simply saying, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill" (2:16).
Pope Francis has a concern for Christian works, in addition to Christian faith. He knows that "faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead" (2:17).
Good works have to go beyond writing a check to a good cause -- they have to be personal. You might remember that Pope Francis, during his first week on the job, went to a juvenile detention center in Rome and washed and kissed the feet of 12 incarcerated youths. Such Christian action is personal. It involves risk. It means running toward the needy, not away from them. Christian action is the way that we show that our faith is not dead.
Pope Francis is challenging us to serve the poor, but also to make our society more just. His ministry is impacting political and business leaders, pushing them to eliminate the causes of poverty. He has said that he "loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but the pope has the duty, in Christ's name, to remind the rich to help the poor, to respect them, to promote their development. The pope appeals for disinterested solidarity and for a return to person-centered ethics in the world of finance and economics."
Person-centered ethics. That's what the pope is calling us to focus on as we vote for leaders, invest our money, and perform our jobs. Person-centered ethics means that we think about the common good, and not make decisions that always favor the rich over the poor. We need to remember the question asked by James, "My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our Lord Jesus Christ" (2:1)?
The answer, of course, is no. You cannot favor the rich over the poor and say that you really believe in Jesus. The pope hates that our society has become a "throwaway culture" where we throw away certain people, instead of promoting "a just system that helps everyone."
More than anything else, the pope is challenging us to practice Christian hospitality -- to welcome people into our lives, and to see the holiness of God in them. My friend Bill Parent, a Roman Catholic priest in Maryland, tells me that "the pope is reclaiming a traditional Christian emphasis on personal encounter."
Christian hospitality is really nothing new. It is an ancient and deep part of our religious tradition, although we often ignore it. All through biblical history, people have been challenged to welcome strangers and to see the holiness of God in them. When Abraham showed hospitality to three strangers in the Book of Genesis, he discovered that they were actually God in disguise (18:1-8).
Jesus was criticized for eating meals with tax collectors and sinners, groups that were considered to be far outside the religious mainstream. At the beginning of the Middle Ages, St. Benedict developed a rule for monastic life that stressed hospitality -- he grounded this practice in the promise of Jesus that he would come to us in the form of a stranger (Matthew 25:35).
I have found that when we welcome and include strangers we discover that they are really not so strange. By sitting down for shared meals and conversation, we find that gays have many of the same beliefs as straights, and same-sex marriages are often grounded in the same love and commitment as heterosexual marriages. By participating in interfaith meals, we find that many Muslims have a deep love for this country and for the freedom they are given to practice their religion in peace.
When we have personal encounters around tables, we are able to break through stereotypes and see each other as people made in the image of God. We are also able to catch a glimpse of Jesus, because he once appeared as a stranger to his disciples in the village of Emmaus. In that place, at a dinner table, Jesus broke bread with them and "their eyes were opened, and they recognized him" (Luke 24:31).
Pope Francis has said that such an encounter "makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus." I want to accept his challenge to serve the poor, to work for a more just society, and to keep my eyes open for the holiness of people around me, especially in shared meals. That's why I'm a fan of Francis.