Sermon at St. Mary's Episcopal Church in County, Maryland

April 23, 2010

A blessed feast of St. George. Where’s the dragon? St. George is supposed to have a dragon in the neighborhood.

Maybe the better question is, who is the dragon? What evil lurks in the hearts of men, as the Shadow used to know? We’re all still besieged by bogeymen, and the fears are the same as those that drove our ancestors to pray, “from ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night, good Lord deliver us.”

I’ll hazard a guess that the dragon around here looks like job loss and economic issues – particularly for those of you charged with overseeing the life of this church and others like it, and for those who struggle to serve the hungry and the worried and the inadequately housed.

George was a martyr at the beginning of the 4th century, in Lydda, in Palestine. He was probably a Roman soldier, but we don’t know anything certain about his life. We know that he was martyred during the Diocletian persecution, and the first record of him is in Syria in 346. The Eastern church calls him megalomartyros, the big martyr or the great martyr. In 495 his name appears on a list that sounds familiar if you think about the feast of All Saints, “good men, justly remembered, whose good deeds are known only to God.”

The dragon story is actually a very late development. It first appears in 1265, and isn’t translated into English for another two centuries. But St. George the soldier-martyr is well known in the British Isles by the time of the first crusade. In 1098, some of the soldiers of Richard the Lionhearted are in Syria, besieging Antioch, and they have a vision of George and another martyr, who urge them to keep up their courage and stick it out. When they succeed, and take the story back to England, the cult of George begins to grow. England takes George’s banner as its national flag in 1284. In 1415, Henry V rallies his troops at Agincourt with the famous cry, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, or close the wall up with our English dead. ... cry God for Harry, England, and St George!”

In 1100 years, George has become the patron saint of England, particularly English sword-carrying soldiers – quite a stretch from the man who died for being a follower of Jesus in 303 or 304.

Yet the story of the dragon has some deeper truth and gospel connection. The 13th century romance tells how George saves the life of a sacrificial victim offered to appease the local dragon, after that beast has grown tired of two sheep a day. Not surprisingly the victim is a beautiful princess. In the original story George doesn’t slay the dragon, he tames it. George has become something like the angel that delivers Peter from his jailers, without undue violence. Nobody dies in Peter’s jailbreak – perhaps a reminder that one execution was supposed to signal the end of state-sponsored violence. The megalomartyr George doesn’t take his slayer with him. George is a Christ-figure in his death as in his life.

Christians have been persecuted in various ways throughout history, and sometimes they – we – have been the persecutors. The community in which John’s gospel was written was under siege just as much as the Saracens (the Muslims) attacked by Richard, or Henry’s troops in Agincourt. The question for John’s community is how will they respond? They are urged to love, rather than hate, even when they are feeling persecuted and attacked. Yet a lot of what they leave behind them in that gospel has been used to incite hatred toward the Jewish community ever since. Bible scholars point out that this is really an internal synagogue fight, and that the language that’s used is the kind we hear in really nasty family quarrels – almost as if the children are squabbling over the inheritance. It’s something like what we hear around us as some Christians decide they must separate themselves from others.

What George might offer us today is a vision of how to let go of the desire for vengeance and violence. Soldiers were not easily welcomed into early Christian communities. There was just as much division over whether the military could be a Christian vocation as there is today over issues of human sexuality or health care in America. Those early Christians had radically different understandings of what constituted a commendable and holy way of life. Some were radical pacifists; others took the position that killing in war didn’t violate the commandment not to commit murder. We still have those divisions within the Christian family today. There are a few Christian bodies where only one position is deemed acceptable, but there is clear understanding in the larger community that there are at least two faithful positions.

How do we engage the holder of a position we vehemently oppose? That’s certainly a dragon plaguing our nation – you know what the smoke-belching sounds like, “tea parties and coffee parties” and “damn the government” and “those poor benighted souls.” We haven’t heard this level of vitriol directed at fellow Americans for a long time, probably not since Viet Nam. Why now? Probably because as a nation we’re anxious and afraid – we’ve recognized that the economy is not indestructible, our children probably do not have the same options that our generations did, our planet is beginning to fray at the edges, we’re confronting our mortality as a species, and change keeps coming down the pike faster than many of us can manage. That’s plenty of ghoulies to keep us awake at night. The dragon is on our doorstep, but the answer is not finding a sacrificial victim. You may have favorite candidates, but neither Sarah Palin or Hilary Clinton is an appropriate offering.

It’s time to tame the dragon, and confront the violence – but not with more violence. Dragons are only tamed by fearless souls, willing to make a friend. Jesus did it, hanging on the cross – both in welcoming his fellow criminal and in refusing violence against the local despots. Where do we need to make friends out of dragons?

Last year, a priest in another diocese told a story about the men’s bible study in his town, and how it was filled with hate-mongers and Ku Klux Klan members. When somebody asked him why he didn’t go and check it out for himself, he stepped back and looked again. He did go, and began to talk to some of those guys, and slowly began to make some friends. He hasn’t turned the whole thing around, but he has planted some seeds, and they’re not seeds of violence.

What dragon have you invited out for a cup of coffee lately? Or a cup of tea?