October 8th 2017
Psalm 25:1-2a,4-9 Philippians 2:2b-8,12-13
I’m so far removed from the days of sending my kids to school that I often wonder what our children are being taught these days; do schools still teach the lessons found in literature, like Aesop’s fables or Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales? Those tales all had valuable moral or ethical lesson to teach the reader, young or old. I’m sure most of us remember reading – or seeing in animated movies – Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” If it has been so long that you don’t recall the details, let me help…
As the story goes, there was once a vain emperor who was only concerned with himself; he loved being praised, of being told how wonderful he was, and how beautiful his clothing was. He was not a very nice man; he treated anyone who disagreed with him very poorly indeed and because he never wanted to be told unpleasant things, he surrounded himself with advisors who quickly learned that it was in their ‘best interest’ to always agree with or flatter their emperor.
That was the atmosphere in the land when two scoundrels came to town. They had a plan to convince everyone that they were master weavers and that no finer cloth could be found than the cloth they wove. When the emperor heard about these two weavers he summoned them; they were slick, they convinced the emperor that their cloth was so fine that only the wisest could see it; it would be completely invisible to anyone who was foolish. The emperor thought this would be just the thing he needed; he would commission the two men to make him the finest suit of clothing in all the world, and when he wore it in his royal court he would discover who amongst his entourage of advisors and ministers was incompetent – because he suspected most of them at one time or another, and some of them all the time.
The two men went to work immediately; they set up a weaving loom and demanded supplies of fine silk and gold threads to make the emperor’s suit. After a few days the emperor’s advisors began to congregate outside the men’s room and listen to the clunking and clattering, as the men worked late into the night at their (empty) loom. When they reported back to the emperor in the morning, he decided to send one of his oldest and most trustworthy ministers to go and check on the progress of his suit. The old minister visited the two men’s room; they showed him the loom, which stood empty, and described in the most elaborate terms, the wonderful colors and intricate patterns of their (make believe) cloth, but they also told the minister that before they could finish the suit they would require even more gold thread and fine silk. The minister, of course, could see nothing, but he had heard the story the weavers told the emperor and he didn’t want to risk being banished from his job, or worse. So he arranged for the delivery of silk and gold, and when he returned to the emperor he reported that the work on his new suit was going splendidly – “it’s enchanting” he said.
The emperor was very pleased to hear the good news about his suit, but on the following day he was becoming anxious, so he sent another advisor to visit the two men. The scene was similar, the advisor was shown into the men’s room and his eyes almost popped out of his head when he saw the empty loom, but he too had heard the story about the ‘magic’ cloth. When the two weavers described how beautiful the cloth was, and asked if he agreed, he thought to himself, “If I tell what I’ve seen, everyone, most importantly the emperor, will think I’m stupid.” So he praised the cloth and reported back to the emperor. Soon everyone in the land was talking about the anticipated new suit of clothing, and the emperor, becoming very impatient, summoned several of his advisors and together they made a royal visit to the two men’s room. The men brazenly showed the royal party into the weaving room and displayed their (make believe) cloth. Everyone in the room was stunned, including the emperor; they all had the same thought, ‘if I admit that I cannot see anything I will become a laughing stock,’ and the buzz in the room, about how beautiful the suit was, was unanimous.
Finally, with much fanfare, it is announced that the suit was complete. The two men presented the emperor with his new (invisible) clothing; they helped him out of his old clothing and assisted him in putting on his new suit, and then complimented the emperor on how well he wore it. The emperor, although he could see nothing, was so proud of his new suit that he decided to have a parade and show all his subjects that he owned the most beautiful – most expensive clothing in all the land.
I’m sure you remember the rest of the story. The royal procession began, and at first there was an undercurrent of mumbling in the crowd as the emperor’s subjects realized he was wearing nothing at all. But the fabrication about the cloth’s ability to reveal someone’s foolishness had spread, and they begin praising the emperor’s suit as the most beautiful clothing they have ever seen. The emperor, so pleased with himself, puffed out his hairy chest as he made his way through the streets… until one child, one little child in his (or her) innocence exclaimed, “The emperor is naked!” “The emperor is naked! and suddenly everyone was laughing hysterically.
Now if you are being honest (with yourself), you may recognized yourself in this children’s story; it is why Anderson wrote it, and why it has been taught to our children for so long. If you’re being really honest, perhaps you see something of yourself in the vain and demanding, and somewhat narcissistic emperor, who always wanted to be told he was right. If we’re being honest, when we find ourselves in the position of having some authority, we are vulnerable to that feeling of being ‘better than’ or more ‘deserving,’ or that we know more or are smarter than others. Vanity accompanies privilege, and privilege is both the by-product – and the source of power or authority, and anyone who has enjoyed any sort of authority is susceptible.
When I was just nineteen years old, I worked in the produce department of the local supermarket, and as I recall, I had it ‘made.’ It was the maturity of being two to three years older than most of the high-school kids who worked there, that afforded me the privilege of going next door to the coffee shop with the department manager each day, to write up the following day’s order. It was that two years that allowed me the opportunity to work the register while the other kids were mopping the floors; it was just that two years that earned me the benefit of having the boss toss me his car keys, and tell me “take my car to be washed” while I was ‘on the clock’.
You see authority, or power, is a funny thing – regardless of how confined it may be to a particular set of circumstance – it does not matter if you are the ‘hall-monitor’ in your school, the CEO of an international corporation, or the ruler of a kingdom, authority has the innate ability to create within us the feeling of being ‘entitled,’ of being above question, of being justified in dismissing the opinions of anyone who might disagree with us, of being just a bit beyond the reach of the rules that govern those circumstances. It is why some folks get ‘selected’ to go to the front of the line (and never feel awkward doing so); it is why the families of police officers display that large gold shield in the windshield of their car; it is why the pastor of the church has a parking spot set aside just for them.
But if you don’t see yourself in the behavior of the emperor… maybe it’s easier to recognize yourself in the attitude of the trusted old minister, or the royal court advisors… or even in the emperor’s subjects, all of whom would rather protect their personal privilege than speak what they knew to be true. Wouldn’t it have been easy, right from the start, if the old minister had said, “My lord, these two scoundrels should be tossed out of town by the scruff of their necks; they are attempting to make a fool of you and to swindle you.” Wouldn’t they have been serving their emperor better? Instead, they all feared the emperor’s wrath if they spoke the truth; they feared they would lose the personal privileges they enjoyed by heaping unearned and unwarranted praises on him. Can’t you see yourself in the position of one of those advisors to the emperor; whenever we are asked our opinion… don’t we weigh the reaction of our response before we speak, and then shade it to fit the circumstances? Don’t you do that? Come on now – be honest, I know I do.
I’m not suggesting we should be brutal in our response, even when that response will not be flattering. I’m suggesting that the emperor did not start out being a bad person; he just enjoyed being acknowledged as a ‘good’ ruler. We don’t start out with the intention of making others feel small or unneeded… we don’t start out trying to be better than anyone else, it’s just that everyone has a need to feel that we are ‘important,’ to ‘feel’ valued. Unfortunately, to varying degrees that need can get out of control; the emperor enjoyed his subject’s praise so much, that he wanted to hear it even when it was not an accurate assessment of his skills. Unfortunately, all too often we find the easiest path to feeling our value, is by making someone else feel they are not as important as we are. The emperor needed a reality check on just ‘who’ he was, and we are in need of that check too. We need a constant reminder that everyone, not only ourselves, needs to feel valued.
Our vulnerability to those feelings is ageless; Paul recognized that it was these very attitudes which were surfacing in the church he had started in the Macedonian city of Philippi. Located smack in the middle of the major trading route between Rome and the countries in Asia-minor and the Mesopotamia, Philippi was one of the most diverse cities in the Roman Empire; rich and poor, people of all ethnicities, all religions; soldiers, seafarers, fishermen, merchants. It was only natural the church reflected the city’s diversity, but that diversity had quickly begun to threatening the unity of the church. His letter is like a plea to for humility; an appeal to consider each other’s opinions equally, to treat each other with dignity, to speak to each other with respect, to be humble and not place them self above another, to love each other. He writes to them to provide a reality check of who they are, and why they had come to be followers of Jesus in the first place.
We live in what may be the most diverse country in the world, at any time in history; there has never been a greater divide between the wealth and the poverty of neighbors; we are a melting pot of ethnicities and races; we are believers and skeptics; and if there ever was a moment when we needed to hear Paul’s message of humility and unity, it is right now. Yes, we are important; yes, we have value; but what is truly important is that God finds equal value in every one of God’s creation – every child is a child of God’s.
So the next time you find yourself thinking that you might be a little bit ‘better’ than that person opposite you; the next time you believe you deserve to move to the front of the line, the next time you think the things which are important to you have greater value than those of the next person’s – because they are yours – take a little reality check. The next time you think your opinion is above questioning – look in the mirror; is the person looking back at you wearing any clothes?
— Amen ―