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Sermon from St George’s Day – Very Revd Robert Grimley

Article posted on 26 April 2017 Leave a Comment

I am delighted to be with you for this Patronal Festival, and I bring you greetings from Christ Church, your cathedral, the cathedral of this diocese.

For my text, some words of the risen Christ from the Gospel reading that we have just heard:

‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. (John 20.21)

Today is the day traditionally known as Low Sunday, and it might seem rather hard luck to be celebrating your Patronal Festival on such a day. But in fact the name Low Sunday is a bit misleading. It might be low in the sense that it represents a bit of a come-down from the razzmatazz of Easter Day, with special music and additional flourishes in the liturgy, but major church festivals traditionally put their mark on the seven days that follow them, making an eight day high point, called an octave, and this Sunday is the eighth day of Easter, so this year we are celebrating St George at the heart of the Easter season, and that is very appropriate for places like this where St George is the Patron Saint, because it means that the element of rededication of your life as a parish at your patronal festival is brought into the closest possible contact with that which is central to the Christian faith, the Resurrection of Christ. There is a wonderful Christian rallying cry, “We are an Easter People, and Alleluia is our song.” It is attributed to St Augustine, but in this country it became more widely known nearly 40 years ago, when the then Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Hume, and the Archbishop of Liverpool, Derek Worlock, organised a Pastoral Congress to stimulate amongst lay people a sense of responsibility for the church’s witness to the Gospel. One of the proponents of this movement developed the theme in this poetic riff: “If Calvary means putting to death things in your life that need killing off for you to flourish as a Christian and as a truly human being, then Easter should mean planting, watering, and training up things in your life (personal and corporate) that ought to be blossoming, filling the garden with colour and perfume, and in due course bearing fruit…”

But how are we to fit St George into this Easter theme? He was first canonised over a thousand years ago by a pope called Gelasius, and I think that even then, in those pre-scientific days, there was a bit of hesitation about some of the more improbable elements in the traditions of venerating St George, because Gelasius very subtly distanced himself from them, by describing George as among those “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God”. Remember that in the best known story about him, he is said to have killed a dragon, an animal which we are now confident does not exist, and in the story of his martyrdom during one of those persecutions which tore the church asunder in the Roman Empire, various terrible things were done to him, any one of which would have been unquestionably fatal, but time and again he was miraculously snatched from the jaws of death as a demonstration of his sanctity, before he was finally beheaded. The central figure of these stories, the valiant Christian knight, presents no problem, because George probably was a Christian who was serving as a Roman soldier, but the legendary elements of his story are a bit of a complication – are we really supposed to believe them? It was embarrassment at such stories that made the then Pope, in 1960, relegate St George’s Day from a major saint’s day to what is known as an optional commemoration, about the lowest point in the saintly pecking order. That caused uproar in this country, but much more widely as well, because he is patron saint of all sorts of occupations, and of places from Lithuania and Moscow to Portugal and Palestine, so in response to the outcry at his demotion there was later some renewed recognition by Rome of the significance of his place in Christian culture.

I have to admit that when I was vicar of a St George’s church in Birmingham, I had a sort of love-hate relationship with our patron saint: I loved the artistic heritage, the dramatic representations of St George, and especially of him in combat with the dragon, but I didn’t feel comfortable with the fact that our parish had nailed its colours to the mast of a figure from legend, rather than to a Christian hero who was a historical person. (The people here from St John’s don’t have to worry about that!) Since then I have come across lyrics by Leonard Cohen, the gloomy, but profoundly thoughtful and sensitive, singer who died recently, in which he sang of a cracked bell:

Ring the bells that still can ring.

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

“There is a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in…” So in spite of any discomfort we might feel about the crack in the truth of stories of St George, let’s rejoice in the fact that through that crack, through the historically unsuported legends, the light can get in, and specifically light which brings home to us the power of Christian faith to withstand evil.

John Bunyan, the great seventeenth century puritan preacher and writer, would not, of course, have had any truck with stories of saints that are not mentioned in the Bible, but he does have in Pilgrim’s Progress a similar conflict between a faithful follower of Christ and evil represented by a dragon. His dragon has a name, Apollyon, which means destroyer. The hero, called Christian, is attacked by him, and the story of the conflict is interwoven with biblical texts of encouragement to the reader, and that, of course, includes us:

As God would have it, while Apollyon was fetching his last blow, thereby to make a full end of this good man, Christian nimbly reached out his hand for his sword, and caught it, saying, Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy: when I fall, I shall arise (Mic. 7:8); and with that he gave him a deadly thrust, which made him fall back, as one that had received his mortal wound. Christian perceiving that, made at him again, saying, Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors, through Him that loved us. (Rom. 8:37). And with that Apollyon spread forth his dragon wings, and sped away (James 4.7), so that Christian saw him no more.

That description of the conflict between Apollyon, the Destroyer, and Christian, a believer like us, is an example of how St George’s battle with the dragon can transformed from an obstacle into a vivid symbol of evil overcome by faith.

When we start thinking like that, we are moving very decisively from the world of legend or pious fiction to the world of every-day reality. As a contemporary Christian writer has put it, “Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonise earth with the life of heaven.”   The act of commissioning and rededication which we shall use later in this service puts the emphasis not on a vague aspirational “one day”, but here and now – it speaks of you being Christ’s ambassadors in this place, and it goes on to repeat words from your parish Vision Statement, spelling out that this means that we, as individuals, and you as a parish, are called to play an active part of the wider community; and that means not only receiving, but also sharing, God’s love wherever we are.

This ideal came through in an interview that President Obama gave to the New Yorker magazine just after his political legacy was repudiated in the outcome of last year’s presidential election. Obviously it was a traumatic time not only for him, but for his whole family, and the interviewer asked him how he would explain this to his two daughters. He replied:

What I say to them is that people are complicated… Societies and cultures are really complicated…  These are living organisms, and it’s messy. And your job as a citizen and as a decent human being is to constantly affirm and lift up and fight for treating people with kindness and respect and understanding. And you should anticipate that at any given moment there’s going to be flare-ups of bigotry that you may have to confront, or may be it’s inside you and you have to vanquish it. And it doesn’t stop … You don’t curl up into a foetal position about it. You don’t start worrying about apocalypse. You say, O.K., where are the places where I can push to keep it moving forward.

There is no explicit mention of the Christian faith there, but those words are clearly inspired by the Christian tradition of discipleship needing to be given practical expression, so what Barak Obama said to those young women about their responsibilities as citizens of the Republic, are just as apposite to us as citizens of the Kingdom of heaven.  Notice that he says, “where are the places where I can push to keep it moving forward,” in other words “What can I do in the present, rather than wait for some unspecified perfect opportunity in the indefinite future?” That is the spirit in which we should think of ourselves as Christ’s people in this place, not only on this Patronal Festival, but every day of the year. As the gradual we sang earlier in this service reminds us, “We have a gospel to proclaim.” Let us take every opportunity to do just that, in word and in deed. Amen.

 

Very Revd Robert Grimley

Honoury Chaplain to Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford & Dean of Bristol Cathedral 1997 – 2009

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