St Francis, Terriers - Trinity 14 (28.08.2016)

Tony Dickinson

The only way up is down.

The only way to the heart of reality is to live on the edge.

That may sound daft, but that is what Jesus is teaching us this morning, taking up the wisdom of the Book of Proverbs and expanding it so that it becomes not just advice on how to behave in a particular social situation, but how to live our life.

The only way up is down – especially if we are serious about growing in relationship with God rather than simply scratching a religious itch. It’s very different from the teaching of the world in which we live, where the message is “Onwards and upwards.” Take hold of whatever power or wealth there is around, whatever perks, prestige, and possessions may be going. Take them and use them. If you don’t have any, make the connections that enable you to get them. Get onto the ladder of opportunity and force your way to the top.

But, as Thomas Merton wisely asked half a century ago, what happens when you get to the top and find that not only have you been climbing the wrong ladder, but that it’s leaning against the wrong wall?

Peter Bernardone’s son Francis had more than a head start in climbing the ladder. His father was one of the richest men in Assisi. Francis was the eldest son, destined to take the family business “onwards and upwards”. And beside that, he was popular; he was a gifted musician; he gave great parties. The world was at his feet. Life was beautiful – and he wanted to keep it that way. Francis would, quite literally, go out of his way to avoid anything that reminded him that life had an ugly side; that not everyone was as rich, or as talented; that people’s lives were blighted by sickness or poverty or disfigurement. It was only when circumstances forced him to face that ugliness, to come close to the reality of poverty, suffering, and helplessness (which for him were focused in those who suffered from leprosy) – it was only then that his life began to change.

Francis himself wrote, toward the end of his life, “While I was in sin, it seemed very bitter to me to see lepers. And the Lord himself led me among them and I had mercy upon them. And when I left them that which seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of soul and body…” Francis had discovered that the only way up is down.

Following that way wasn’t easy. Peter Bernardone’s business plan did not include his son opting out of the family firm. Nor could his sense of the respect that was due to him cope with what he saw as Francis’s increasingly strange behaviour. There was a series of fraught confrontations between them, which reached their climax in the court of Bishop Guido of Assisi where Francis decisively rejected his father’s life and the status, the wealth, the ambition that went with it. He didn’t so much reposition the ladder as leap off the ladder and send it crashing to the ground.

As a result, Francis found himself among the very poorest, with outsiders of all kinds: not only lepers, but homeless people, beggars, tramps and travellers. But with that there came the joy of discovering that the way down into their company was also the way up towards God. Francis had turned his back on the comfort zone so painstakingly built up by his father’s business career. He had indeed sat down at the lowest place – and such was the obvious joy that he found there that others came to join him, as they still do today.

Francis found joy there, because Francis found God there. Not in wealth or status. Not in respect or popularity. He found God among those who were outcast, despised, helpless. He found God in the lowest place, among people who could not repay a favour – the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Francis found God, in other words, in the places where a success-driven world would least expect to find him. He broke free of the need for power, perks, prestige, and possessions which is the normal armour of the false self. Living at the edge, he found himself at the heart of reality. Where is that heart for us, in High Wycombe today? Where can we find the way down – which is the only way up?