Saturday, 5 October 2013

Two Young Men who Ran Fast: St Cuthbert and St Francis

I think of St Francis as the Cuthbert of Italy. I put it that way round because here in Cuthbert’s shrine, we recognise that Cuthbert is the senior saint by 500 years. What do they have in common, these two saints who lit up the worlds they moved in and have been remembered and loved ever since? Famously, there is the ecstatic love both had for the natural world, not a sentimental affection for furry creatures but a reverence and courtesy towards all living things that sprang directly from how they saw creation transfigured by God’s presence.  You could imagine Cuthbert singing The Canticle of the Sun. There is the compassion they both had for human beings at the extremes of wretchedness and need: they embraced the poor and outcaste as God’s special possession.  There is the simplicity and humility they were both admired and loved for, their willingness to take up the cross and for its sake become nobodies. And finally their burning witness to the good news of Jesus. ‘Why not be turned into fire?’ asked Francis once. It was the fervour of their lives that made their testimony so life-changing for others. ‘Preach the gospel: use words if necessary.’

But I’d like to focus on what strikes me so strongly in both these beloved saints we honour.  They were both young men, privileged and powerful, like the character in today’s gospel reading, running up to Jesus and eagerly kneeling in front of him.  To me, he captures something of the spirit of Cuthbert and Francis, at least as the story begins. He wants to know what he has to do to inherit eternal life.  He does not walk or stroll but runs: he wants to know.  This is not the lazy insouciance of someone who is not greatly troubled by the answer, whose question is merely a courtesy or a way of alleviating the boredom of being rich.  He wants to know because he needs to know and he will not go away unless he gets an answer.  So Jesus tells him, not without first pressing him to examine his assumptions: ‘why do you call me good?  No-one is good but God alone’.  Be sure of the premise of your question.  Does this would-be denizen of the kingdom of God have any idea who this good Man is who has stopped to teach him what citizenship means? 

Yet we can admire this youth who though young and rich and powerful is not so arrogant as to forget the importance of curiosity.  His running up to Jesus tells us something about his motivation and desires. He wants to be a disciple, a learner in the school of Christ, and embrace the kingdom of God that is coming upon the world which Jesus’ teaching points to so urgently.   So he runs towards Jesus and all that life in him will offer: wisdom and purpose, truth and joy and peace. He will do anything it takes to inherit eternal life. 

Anything?  Jesus tests him on this next, for now it is not only the premise but the resolve that must be examined.  ‘You know the commandments: don’t murder, or kill, or commit adultery, or steal, or practise falsehood, or defraud; and honour your father and mother.’  It is a kind of spiritual triage: who can come out of it with clean hands and a pure heart as the psalm says?  Yet still he is there, undaunted, looking up into Jesus’ face, full of desire to do the right thing and not disappoint the man whose words are charged with promise.  ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’  Does Jesus smile at a young man’s naivete?  Or does he give him the benefit of the doubt: not that he has been perfect (‘no-one is good but God alone’), but that he has sincerely lived by torah all his life, the divine law that is the source of all that is wholesome and good in human life?  To follow torah is to learn virtue, train our moral compass, live wisely and grow in the image of God.  All this he has done from his mother's arms.

He will not turn away.  And here St Mark’s story makes the most telling point of all.  ‘Jesus, looking at him, loved him.’  That little detail, like the young man running, paints a picture a thousand words could not even sketch.  He loved him.  It is the only time Mark, Matthew or Luke ever say that Jesus loved someone.  Indeed, if you search the word ‘love’ and its cognates in the first three gospels, you will only find it used of God’s love for his Son, and our obedient love for God and neighbour, apart from here.  ‘Jesus, looking at him, loved him’, a verb Matthew and Luke can’t bring themselves to preserve when they tell this story.   Why not?  Is this love for a winsome youth too specific, too particular?  What was it that Jesus loved?  His dogged persistence in not letting go?  Jesus was drawn to people like that: the Canaanite woman who was not put off by his insulting riposte that it is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs; the wayward Mary Magdalene so desperate to be loved.  A parable told of the widow who wouldn’t give up pestering the judge until he gave her what she wanted.  This young man is another unlikely companion: there aren’t many rich people in the gospels as dogged as this when it comes to the kingdom of God. 

And then the denouement.  We don’t want it to come, wish that it could have been otherwise, for we too have come to care about this young man and his destiny.  ‘You lack one thing’ (how his heart must leapt at that: just one thing!). ‘Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.’  And at once the light in his eyes starts to dim.  ‘When he heard this he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions’.  It’s as if there has been a kind of death.  For it is a real bereavement: the hope, the vision, the promise suddenly knocked away from him, and only the stern, unyielding demand of the good Teacher echoing in his ears as he slinks away, the cruel summons to give up his life for the sake of the kingdom he wants so badly. 

‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’ says Jesus, and this is the point of the story.  He goes on to reflect with his disciples on where lasting value lies: not, he says, in material gain but in following where the good news leads.  Contemplating the renunciation of what we have and what we are for the sake of the kingdom of God: that is the only test of how much we really want it, how eager we are to embrace it.  I think of Cuthbert, the privileged young man who had a vision of St Aidan and abandoned his old life to run towards the monastery at Melrose.  I think of Francis the privileged young man whom his angry father disinherited and who gladly ran into the arms of Lady Poverty, giving away everything he had to the beggars of Assisi. It is stories like these that tell me that Christianity is true, and how far I have to travel before it becomes true in me.    

Most of us are not rich and not powerful, and many of us are not young any more.  Perhaps our running days are over, perhaps the gleam in the eye is duller than it used to be, perhaps our naïve but eager curiosity has been displaced by life’s abrasions into settling for the easy compromises of a cosy, untroubled existence.  So how do we keep the spiritual flame burning bright?  By practising singleness of heart, the kind of simplicity that by making us a nobody, cleanses our sight, focuses our intention and gives us back the longing with which we always wanted to run towards the kingdom of God.  We only have to run towards it, say yes to it, grasp hold of it.  This was Cuthbert, and it was Francis, two young men who obeyed the call, became poor and found where true wealth lay. Could it be you? Me? I feel for the rich young man who began so well, but could not do it, or could not do it yet. Yet I’m confident of this: that even when he turned away, the good Teacher did not stop loving him.

Durham Cathedral, 5 October 2013 (Mark 10.17-31)

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