From the Rev. Joe Hensley, Rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | 5th Sunday in Easter, Year C, April 24, 2016
Jesus says to his disciples: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Love one another. That’s why we are here today…to strive to follow that commandment. Just as I have loved you, so you should love each other, Jesus says. We are to love as Jesus loves.
It is a little strange that our Gospel reading today, the fifth Sunday in Easter, comes from the night before Jesus dies. Why have we gone backwards in the story to the last supper? Perhaps it is because now that we have witnessed Jesus’ death and resurrection, we can understand Jesus’ command to love more deeply. Jesus says he gives a “new” commandment, but there’s nothing new about love. God has been telling people to love each other for a long time. Jesus’ ability to love in the face of his death on a cross, his willingness to forgive, casts the command in a new light. Love is not simply caring for each other. The love of Christ is a faithfulness that cares when others do not, that is devoted when others betray. The love of Christ affirms even those who have denied us. The love of Christ blesses those who curse us. The love of Christ draws its power not from dominance but from compassion. The love of Christ is willing to die, but it refuses to stay dead. The love of Christ rises again and again and again. This is how we, too, are called to love.
Frankly, it sounds almost impossible. How are we to love as Christ does? The Church, in its wisdom, over the centuries, has lifted up the example of saints who have revealed something of the love of Christ. The saints give us hope. The saints show us that folk like you and me can love like Jesus. Thus, we name our churches after these exemplars of faith, hope, and love, that they may inspire and motivate us to follow Jesus by their example. Yesterday, April 23, was the feast day of St. George, for whom, of course, this parish is named. It is a good time for us to remember this brave Christian.
Yet, I wonder how many of us actually know that much about George? We might know that he is the patron saint of England and many other places. The facts we know about his life are few. There are many legends. Briefly, George was a Roman military officer in the service of the emperor Diocletian around the end of the third century of the common era. His father had also been a military officer, and his parents had raised George as a Christian from birth in what is now Turkey. When the emperor decided that the Christians were becoming too much of a threat, he decreed that all Christian soldiers in Rome’s military be arrested. Either convert to the pagan religion of Rome or be executed. George refused to convert. The Romans tried to get him to change his mind, because George was a high ranking officer from a prominent family and a valued member of his guard. George refused their bribery, and he was condemned to torture and death. Before his execution, George gave all his wealth to the poor. Legends abound about how many trials he endured before he was finally beheaded. One story says his grace in the face of suffering led the emperor’s wife and at least one other person to renounce the pagan gods right then and there, and they, too, were executed. George’s faithful endurance, his generosity, and his conversion of others make him a compelling character. He shows us that faithful love, the love of Christ, is possible for us, even in the face of unspeakable hardship. This is probably why he became patron saint of soldiers.
But the story that is most famous about George is not about his tenacious faith or his endurance of torture and death. If people have heard of Saint George, they most often associate him with…a dragon. According to legend, Saint George slew a dragon. Yes, it is most likely a legend, a mythological story that was adapted several hundred years after his death to include Saint George. According to the legend, George is more of a medieval, chivalric knight than a Roman tribune, and he saves a town (and a maiden in distress) from a hungry dragon. It is a rather gruesome story, perhaps not suited for the pulpit. And for those of us who actually like dragons as amazing mythological beasts, it is not the most positive story in that the dragon is killed at the end. We don’t want to imagine the cute dragon on our St. George’s preschool sign skewered by George’s lance! So why do we even bother to bring this story out of the closet? Why fly a dragon kite in our church procession today? Why display our banner with George battling the beast? How could this story possibly relate to loving the way Jesus loves?
Stories are a powerful and wonderful way that we express our deepest truths. Our parish fellowship weekend at Shrine Mont this fall, by the way, will focus on stories and storytelling. Our theme is “Go tell it on the mountain.” For the storytellers in the Middle Ages, putting George in this story was powerful in that it showed how faith can live in the face of danger. George makes the sign of the cross and is able to defeat the monster. For medieval story tellers, beasts and darkness were not simply imaginary threats. The world was a dark and scary place. For George to ride in on a horse with a sword and overcome chaos was indeed a sign of God’s love and faithfulness. As a result of the dragon’s defeat, the legend says that George convinced all the villagers to be baptized. It was a powerful story for centuries. For us, now, though I think it probably sounds more like a fairy tale. Entertaining perhaps but not transformative, not enough to inspire us to love like Jesus did. But what if we change the story a bit? We are not talking about changing Holy Scripture; this is a different kind of story. What if, like the ancient bards who added to their stories in order to tell a greater truth, we add something to this tall tale?
What if, after its death, the dragon was raised? What if, after having terrorized the village for so long, the dragon was given a new life, a life dedicated to wonder and amazement, to loving and flying in glorious splendor? What if the dragon needed to die in order to truly live? You see, the dragon was caught in a never-ending cycle of hunger. It would eat the sacrificial lambs and then be ravenous for more. It would devour the innocent and never be satisfied. What if saint George came along not to destroy a monster but to redeem it? What if George killed the dragon to put it out of its misery, to interrupt its violence so that it could love? …And so some say, after the dragon was slain, St. George knelt down to pray that God would bring it back to life so that it could delight instead of terrify. And that’s just what happened. The dragon was raised and no longer terrorized the village. In return the villagers made sure it had food to eat. And George was the first to cry “hallelujah” when he saw the magnificent creature, raised from death, stretch its wings and fly toward heaven. The end!
The poet Rilke wrote in a letter to a young poet: “Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” The story of St. George and the dragon has always been about facing fears with God’s help. The good news that we need today, perhaps, is less about vanquishing our fears and more about learning to love them so that they can be transformed, love them so that they can die and be resurrected as wonder and hope. When we learn to love our fears, when we learn to love those whom we fear, the cycle of endless devouring and destruction is interrupted. This is the love of the risen Christ. The love that casts out all fear. The love that casts away all resentment and bitterness and revenge. The love that interrupts the cycles of violence in our world. The love that will not recant and cannot be bought. The love that binds us to God and each other so strongly that no empire, no tyrant, not even death itself can undo it. Thanks be to God for Jesus who gave us anew the commandment that we love each other as he loves us. Thanks be to God for blessed George, and for all the saints whose witness and love helps us hope for new life.