Wednesday 24 April 2013

St George and the Dragons of Today

The following sermon was preached at St George's School, Cape Town, on the Feast of St George, 23 April 2013.

Acts 11:19-26, Psalm 87, John 10:22-30

The story of St George and the dragon is just one episode of human beings’ long fascination with dragons.

There’s even a cartoon film, How to Train your Dragon. Do you know it? In the film the hero discovers that the dragons, who he has been taught are dangerous and to be feared, and to be regarded as the enemy, are actually neither of those things.

The young lad Hiccup, is nothing that a Viking ought to be. Hiccup is small and weedy, and thinks deeply – whereas a proper Viking ought to be a big, and brawny, acting first, and thinking later, if at all. Instead of killing a wounded dragon, he befriends it. As he later says, he realised that he was absolutely terrified, and so was the injured dragon. ‘I looked into its eyes … and I saw myself.’ And, as you will know, after various adventures, the humans and dragons stop being enemies, and the Vikings live with the dragons as their pets.

In our lives there are lots of things we think of as ‘dragons’ – things, or even people, that we think of as dangerous, frightening, and perhaps even as our enemies. And, all too often, what we are afraid of grows in our imaginations until it becomes a really huge and terrifying dragon.

Interestingly, when I have looked at pictures of St George and the dragon through history, more often than not the dragon is remarkably small. It is certainly smaller than St George’s horse, if he is riding one. And it is sometimes smaller than St George himself, as he makes an end of it with his long sword.

Such medieval oil paintings are often trying to convey a message that goes beyond trying to produce an accurate representation of events. I think they are trying to tell us that when St George actually faced the dragon, it became diminished – small enough for him to deal with easily. And they want us to believe the same about the dragons we face.

What we need, like St George, and like Hiccup in the film, are an openness to learn, and courage. In other words, we need the wisdom that comes with education, and we need character. St George’s School is committed to building wisdom and character in all its learners.

Let me start with the openness to learn, and wisdom. Do you know the joke about the difference between wisdom and knowledge? Well, knowledge is knowing that a tomato is not a vegetable, but a fruit. Yet wisdom is knowing not to put tomato in a fruit salad!

Wisdom is about learning as much as you can, and taking that education and finding out how to use it well. So take the opportunities you have, to study hard – not just how to pass exams, but how to use what it is that you learn. This is the wisdom we need to face the ‘dragons’ around us in society today.

Education is the best possible start for dealing with the challenges in the political, social, and economic life of our country today. So to build a democratic society, of true equal opportunity for everyone, education is the best foundation – or even we might say with St George, the best weapon!

Education is the best tool for improving education itself, or the health sector, or housing, or making sure everyone has a proper toilet. Education is the best start for facing down the challenges of running a business that makes an honest profit while treating its workers justly. Education is the best foundation for wisdom in overcoming the legacies of the past, overcoming inequality, overcoming the burdens of poverty, and overcoming the temptations of crime and corruption.

Education is the very best start that anyone can have in life. But knowing how to use your education, and daring to put it to the best possible use – well that also takes character and courage.

Being brave is not about never being afraid – it is, as some have said ‘about feeling the fear and doing it anyway’.

Some of you have already heard the story from my own life, about growing up in Alexandra township, where there were lots of gangs. We were all quite wary of the gangs – and rightly. But some were so afraid that when gang leaders tried to recruit them, they didn’t dare say no.

I tried to stay well clear of them, but one day, one of the leaders tried to attack me – and I just happened to have my one and only precious golf club with me, and, I don’t quite know how, I got the better of him. He came back the next day, with a knife – but I told him I was not interested either in joining his gang or in trying to take his position. And my sisters joined me, and he backed away and always left us alone. I’d thought he was a fearsome dragon – but when we stood up to him, he just shrank, and backed off.

When we are scared, God can give us courage. This is what Jesus tells us in the second reading today. We may feel as small and helpless as sheep – but, says Jesus, no-one, not even the strongest dragon, can snatch us out of God’s loving hand.

This doesn’t mean life will always be easy. We know life can be dangerous – and we must be sensible about the dangers, especially of crime and gangs and drugs.

But it does mean that God is always on our side, as long as we are trying to do the right thing, say the right thing, live the right way. And if God is on our side, we can dare to be courageous. We can dare to face down the dragons – and to find that they shrink, to far more manageable size before our eyes.

Remember me in your prayers this week – as I am going straight from here to catch a plane to lead a group looking at the problems of mud schools in the Eastern Cape. Failures in education there are a very big dragon – I hope that by facing it, we can shrink it down to a manageable size, and even slay it.

Sometimes, when we face up to our dragons, we might even find, like Hiccup did, that some of them are not really ferocious beasts at all, but more like pets!

Let me end with one other comment.

Our first reading was all about a man called Barnabas. He crops up a lot in the stories of the first few years of the Christianity, after Jesus’ death and resurrection. He is not the most famous of Biblical figures – like, for example, St Paul. But he is one of the most necessary.

For again and again we find him building bridges between people who have fallen out, and bringing out the best in people. We heard today how he took the initiative to find a man called Saul, who had had an amazing vision on the road to Damascus and become a Christian – and he brought him into the church and trained him. That man we know as St Paul, who is one of the greatest figures in Christianity.

Barnabas’ name means ‘the son of encouragement’. He went about encouraging others. We all need encouragement, don’t we – especially if we feel we are facing dragons! Yet the good news is that all of us can be ‘sons and daughters of encouragement’, helping others to do our best, in pursuing wisdom, and in living with character and courage.

So then, let me end. Today, once again, we thank God for St George. And we thank God for what we can learn from him: that, with the wisdom that comes from a good education of mind and character, and with the courage that God can give us, there is no dragon that we cannot face. And all of us can encourage one another, to pursue wisdom, and to have courage – so that we can all become the best people we can be.