Tomorrow happens to be the Feast Day of St. George. So I thought, for those who don’t know it, that I would start with his story.
St. George was born in about 275 AD to a Christian family in Palestine, under the Roman Empire. When George was orphaned at age 17, he enlisted in the Roman army. Despite his youth he rose quickly in the ranks, and by his mid-20s George had been promoted to a high-ranking officer.
Then things began to go wrong. On February 24, 303 AD Emperor Diocletian issued a law ordering that the Christian soldiers in his army be arrested and forced to sacrifice to Roman gods. George refused, publicly and loudly. The Emperor, in danger of losing his skilled officer, offered him all sorts of gifts and bribes in an attempt to convince him to renounce Christianity, but George never wavered.
So George was tortured and executed by decapitation on April 23rd, three hundred and three AD. His body was soon returned to his hometown of Lydda. His brave example inspired the conversion of many, and Christians began venerating him as a martyr.
But you may know that St. George is known for slaying the dragon. So where’s the dragon in that story?
Well, the stories and legends around St. George grew, until one story grew in fame beyond the others.
There was once a city by the name of Silene, perhaps in Libya, which depended on a spring of water as its drinking source. One day a dragon (or maybe a very large crocodile, but that’s less exciting) decided to make its nest at the spring. This was a problem for the citizens when they came to get water, and so each day they would offer a sacrifice to the dragon so that he would allow them to gather the water. At first the sacrifice consisted of sheep, but as the sheep ran out, the townspeople started offering children, choosing them by lottery. And finally the princess herself was chosen. At the last minute St. George rode up, marked himself with the Sign of the Cross, slew the dragon, and rescued the princess. The citizens immediately rejected their pagan religion and converted to Christianity on the spot, and icons of St. George slaying the dragon have been popular ever since.
Well one of the things that is so compelling about this story is what the dragon represents. I went to Ethiopia a few years ago, and there were icons of St. George everywhere. For them, St. George is revered because the dragon represented the Italians, who tried to colonize and take over their country in the late 19th century. The Ethiopians, carrying a relic of St. George, rode into war against the Italians and won.
For others over the years, the dragon represented suppressed pagan cults.
“But another and far more widespread tradition has seen [St George] as the pattern of what it means to be a Christian in the world — as an image of every Christian’s daily warfare against the forces of sin, ignorance, fear, and injustice.” (For All the Saints) The true dragons of our world.
Our readings today give us a very different set of images from this fiery and heroic dragon-slaying: we are transported to a peaceful pasture, with green meadows and grazing sheep, and a Shepherd who cares for us. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the Lord who leads us by quiet streams, through green pastures, and along paths of righteousness. One of my favourite little features in this church is this beautiful carving of Jesus as the Good Shepherd on this very pulpit. And with our Shepherd with us, we fear no evil; for he is with us; his rod and staff comfort us. He prepares a banquet for us, overflowing with delight. Goodness and mercy follow us, and we dwell in his house forever.
Psalm 23, which we just sang in that beautiful hymn, is one of the most beloved Psalms in the entire Bible. And for good reason.
In our busy, harried lives, rushing from one thing to another, it is so good to take a moment just to imagine
rest in green meadows,
quiet waters nearby,
all the food and protection we need,
and our beloved Shepherd close to us.
I sometimes long to insert myself into this psalm, just into this verse – to have time to recover from the stresses of life, to let my soul be fed by the sweet companionship of the Lord, resting in his presence. That is one of the things the Psalm calls us to, one reason it is so sweet.
But listening carefully to the whole of the psalm can evoke a different picture, because once we leave those quiet meadows and still waters, we are on unsure and dangerous ground. And, we are in need of a different kind of shepherd than the meek-mannered and gentle one that Jesus is often depicted as.
Listen to the next verse: “He leads us in paths of righteousness for his Name’s sake.”
It sounds nice, doesn’t it? But pause for a moment. The righteous path, the path of justice, has never been the easy one. This is the narrow gate, the hard way that leads to life. This is the via dolorosa, the path of pain.
This is the path that Peter and John are standing on in our reading from Acts today, as they face the Sanhedrin and the religious leaders who are angry that they have been healing in Jesus’ name. They risked death to tell the truth about Jesus, and eventually, years later, Peter was martyred for it.
This is the path that we are told about in our Epistle today, where we are told that a true love is a love that is ready to lay down its very life for another.
This is the path of self-denial, of loving others as ourselves, not in word and speech but in truth and action. It’s the path of Truth and Reconciliation; of listening to the stories of our Indigenous brothers and sisters who had terrible things done to them in the name of religion. It’s the path of being willing to stop and sit beside someone who is living on the street, and hear their story. It’s the simple path of giving up our seat on the bus, or the harder path of openly claiming the Name of Jesus as our reason for life and hope. It’s the path of forgiving those who have hurt us, and apologizing to those whom we have hurt.
On the extreme end, this is the path St. George took when he refused to convert by order of the Emperor, a decision that almost 100,000 Christians make yearly, still, today, as they die for their faith around the world.
Friends, the path of righteousness is not easy. But the good news is that it’s not up to us to follow it on our own.
I have very little experience with sheep. I once spent a winter close enough to a sheep farm to learn that while the little lambs are cute, full-grown sheep are stinky, stupid, and helpless. They rely completely on the care of the shepherd.
Sheep can’t provide for themselves – let alone choose to take the paths of righteousness themselves – but they don’t have to. It is the shepherd, the Good Shepherd, who leads the sheep down these paths of righteousness, for his own Name’s sake. He is a good guide, and will not let us fall.
Despite all of the beautiful imagery earlier in the psalm, it’s the next verse that makes this psalm the most well-beloved of all the psalms in the Bible: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me – Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.”
Comfort and lack of fear in this, the scariest and darkest place of our lives. If this darkest valley were on an old-fashioned map, it would be labelled “here be dragons”. This is the valley, were we to choose our own path of righteousness, that we would avoid at all costs.
And yet we can’t avoid it. We all go through this valley at some point. The families in Humboldt are going through it right now. Others here may have been dwelling in its vales for a long time. For some of us, it might feel like we never leave it. And it is here, finally, in this valley, that our image of the meek and mild shepherd-Jesus must be thrown out the window. In this dark and painful valley, the valley of the shadow, we are helpless.
But the Shepherd caring for us is by no means helpless. The Shepherd carries two things – a rod, and a staff. They sound the same to us, but in fact the word used for “rod” actually refers to something more like a club, which was sometimes even embedded with nails – in fact, a powerful weapon that was used to fight off predators. And that is precisely the role of a shepherd – at least, one who is invested in his sheep’s wellbeing.
In our gospel reading we are given the contrast between Christ the Good Shepherd, and the hired hand. The hired hand is in it for the money, nothing else. He sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away–and the wolf snatches the sheep and scatters them. It’s likely easy enough for each of us to imagine what the “wolf” – or dragon, if we think back to the story of St George, might be in our own stories – the physical, or psychological, or spiritual threat to our safety, our sanity, our soul.
But, Christ says, we know our Shepherd, and we know that he will not run away and he will not leave us helpless against our foes – because he did not run away. He was and he is invested in us to the point of death and beyond. We have the comfort of a Shepherd who took on Death on the cross, and defeated it and rose again triumphant. We have a Shepherd who continues to fight fiercely for us, who will never give up helping us battle the dragons of our fear, the wolves of our pain and our anger, and whose victory is assured.
Friends, no matter how hard it is, and how lost we may feel, we can make it through this valley of the shadow without fear, because we have the promise that our Shepherd is right there beside us, fighting off the predators of our souls.
And so we finally arrive safely on the other side of this beloved psalm, the Easter side, and we are invited to come, to feast on the goodness of our Shepherd in the land of the living. So come. Come running, and don’t come alone, but bring everyone you know, to this banquet table that is prepared for all of us. For Christ, our Shepherd Dragon-Slayer, has died and has risen triumphant and victorious, and lives to intercede for us always. We are gathered under his care, and are invited to his table. Therefore let us keep the feast.