You will all have seen copies of those old maps on which the empty spaces beyond the known shores bore the inscription - or the warning - "Here be dragons."
New Zealand lay in one of those empty spaces, once. Of course, it was not empty. Navigators from Hawaiki had come across it and had begun to settle it. They had close cousins in Tonga, Samoa and the Cook Islands and more distant ones in Fiji. They developed their own distinctive culture, distinctive but still with echoes of, even similarities with, those of their cousins. And there were no dragons - or at least none to be slain. But there were taniwha, sometimes well-beloved, sometimes of malign disposition - but that's another story.
Back where the maps were being made, at least in some parts, there certainly had been dragons. You only have to read about the exploits of knights of King Arthur's Round Table. Dragons had inhabited Middle Earth too, as JRR Tolkein described, but this is his story.
The particular dragon that today reminds us of was a specially nasty piece of work. He had very bad breath, that poisoned everyone who came near. He (because in those days, dragons were exclusively male) terrorised the whole country. The local people appeased him by feeding him two sheep a day. Sheep eventually becoming scarce, it was decided that one human might be an acceptable dragon-dietary substitute. So they drew lots, and of course the lot fell to the King's daughter. She went out to meet her fate, but as we know, a youth named George, wearing shining armour and carrying a shield bearing a scarlet cross, came to her rescue. Contrary to the many depictions of this encounter that we can see in books and on the walls of art galleries, he did not kill the dragon at once, but, having pierced it with his lance, it became quite docile and he led it back to the town with the princess's girdle - which, one assumes, was an outer garment, and one he had but gently borrowed.
George told the people not to be afraid, but using an evangelical technique that still has its exponents today, he promised the people that if they believed in our Lord, he would rid them of the monster. The people agreed, George turned on the poor dragon and killed it, and 15,000 people were baptised. Breaking with tradition, George did not ask or receive the hand of the princess in marriage, but instead asked the King to maintain churches, honour priests, and show compassion to the poor. So much for legend.
History records little about George, other than his death at Lydda in Palestine in about 303 AD, a martyr in the persecution by the Roman emperor, Diocletian.
His story caught the imagination of people in various parts of Europe and particularly in England. He became the special patron of soldiers and Richard I put his army under George's protection when he went off on the Crusades. He seems to have been adopted as England's patron saint at about the time Edward III founded the Order of the Garter in the 14th century, and of course, the Order's great chapel at Windsor was dedicated to him. And there can be little doubt, if Shakespeare is to be relied upon, that it was Henry V's invocation of him that carried the day for England at Agincourt.
George was seen as the personification of the ideals of Christian chivalry and Saint George's Day has come to be a time to recognise both the contribution England has made to the world, and the qualities of sacrificial service that lie at the heart of the legend, and of that steadfastness in faith that brought the historical figure to his martyr's death.
Some may think it odd that we should celebrate the patron saint of England in New Zealand, and in a Methodist Church in particular, for we Methodists don't have too much truck with saints. But I think it is appropriate. For it was from England that 18th and 19th century travellers came to join the tangata whenua in making this new nation, in what was no longer a "Here be dragons" empty space, but was instead a land of hope and of promise.
And it was from England in the main, that the missionaries brought the Gospel to these shores, as they did to Samoa and Tonga and the Cook Islands and Tokelau and Niue. And of course, John Wesley was an Englishman, a very great Englishman indeed, one who brought countless of his countrymen to Christ. He had no threatening dragon to back him up. He simply spoke from his heart, with the power of the Holy Spirit, sharing his own deep and passionate faith.
New Zealanders have every reason to be grateful to those men and women from England who brought the Gospel to the South Seas, who laboured long and hard, often in conditions of danger and deprivation, and sometime at the cost of their own lives.
And it in no way diminishes our pride in our nationhood to acknowledge the debt we owe to England. We in this land are the most fortunate inheritors of a diversity of cultures. We each have much to learn from the others, much to rejoice in. England has given us literature - and let's remember that Shakespeare was born on St. George's Day - and music and art, it has given us law and constitutional order, it has given us fundamental concepts of liberty and fair play - to say nothing of cricket and rugby (rival religions, almost?).
The bonds between our two nations, bonds of kinship and culture, are strong and deep and though at times they are put under some stress, they endure. The Link programme, sponsored by the British Council is in its 50th year, is clear evidence of this.
Let us learn too, from the part-legendary, part-historical figure whose name is given to this day when we commemorate those bonds. There are still dragons about, you know; not only human ones. Saint Paul in Galatians Chapter Five listed some of them. He called them, "the works of the flesh." He had quite a list.
It includes such things as impurity, idolatry, envy, greed, selfish ambitions, uncontrolled temper. Were he writing today, he might have given some of them different names, like racism and exploitation, but some would be unchanged, like selfishness and greed. And the dragons still claim their victims: the children of broken homes, overwhelmed solo mothers, street kids, drug addicts, people living in squalid conditions struggling to make ends meet, the old and the lonely and the unloved.
Saint George's Day is an opportunity to remind ourselves that Saint Paul urged us, too, to vanquish these dragons - these dragons that beset ourselves and our communities. This he tells us we can do by putting on the whole armour of God. Buckle on the belt of truth, he said. For coat of mail, put on integrity. Let the shoes on your feet be the Gospel of peace. Take up the great shield of faith. Take salvation for helmet. For sword, take that which the spirit gives you, the words that come from God.
Inspiring words. Many and many are those who, clothed in God's armour, have slain dragons. We are called to do the same. Let's be sure our armour is sound. The dragon's breath is still pretty lethal.
Friday, 9 January 2009