“The Emperor’s New Clothes”
Morning Devotions – Folk Meeting Tyler - 8/24/19
By ANDRES ALBERTSEN
Thank you, dear God, for protecting us through the night from all harm and danger. Thank you for the night’s sleep, thank you for the night’s dreams, and thank you for this day, this brand-new, whole and unused day, that you have given us to live in happiness and hope and good company, with faith and trust in life, with curiosity and eyes opened to reality as it is. Thank you for all the people whose good work and dedication make it possible that we can enjoy these wonderful days of folk meeting in Tyler.
We thank you for the delicious food and we remember the hungry. We thank you for our good health and we remember the sick, especially those who are not with us this year because of health conditions. We thank you for friends and good company and we remember the friendless and the lonely, and the friends we met in Tyler who have passed away.
Help us remember how fortunate we are and that we should never take anything for granted. Keep refreshing, invigorating, and stirring us up, so that when we return home we can be even more active participants in our communities, committed to speaking the truth to others with love and compassion and willing to hear the truth from others. In the name of Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen.
This summer a church presented me with the following challenge: I could choose the scripture readings that I wanted, but the sermon had to be based on a children’s story. Of course, I chose a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. His fairy tales are emblematic examples of children’s literature not just for children. I have also chosen an Andersen fairy tale for this morning’s devotions, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” I assume that you know this story about two weavers who promise the emperor a new suit of clothes that will be invisible to those who are stupid or unfit for their positions. While they in reality do not make any clothes at all, they make everyone believe that the clothes are invisible to them. When the emperor parades before his subjects in his new “clothes,” no one dares to say that they do not see any suit of clothes on him for fear that they will be seen as stupid. But finally, there is somebody who unmasks the truth –– (spoiler alert!) –– a child who cries out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”
Let us start with a reading from Mark 10:13-16: Some people brought their children to Jesus so that he could bless them by placing his hands on them. But his disciples told the people to stop bothering him. When Jesus saw this, he became angry and said, “Let the children come to me! Do not try to stop them. People who are like these little children belong to the kingdom of God. I promise you that you cannot get into God’s kingdom, unless you accept it the way a child does.” Then Jesus took the children in his arms and blessed them by placing his hands on them.
Let me ask you a question: Do you sometimes put forward a false appearance of who you are or express feelings or points of view different from the ones you have? I do. More often than I would like to admit, I respond or express myself according to the image that I want the others to have of me, or according to what I think that others are expecting of me. We can all pretend and act as if we were strong, confident and, calm, when the reality is that we are weak and uncertain of our own worth, our abilities, and our position. We can act as if we were happy and delighted, when the reality is that we live in sickness and grief. We can pretend and act as if we were relatively wealthy and at the same time hide and cover up that the bank has already put up our home for sale at a public auction, and that we really do not know how we will pay our bills. We can be masters in showing that we are in control of a situation, that our self-esteem is high, and that we have a good sense of humor, when we, in reality, are very sensitive and incredibly touchy and irritable. I sometimes get angry when a friend from Argentina tells me that he or she is happy for me because I am so glad and have so much fun, but of course, if all my friend sees is what I post on Facebook, it is easy to give the impression that I am always doing well. I do not post anything on Facebook when I have an argument with my husband. I did not post anything on Facebook when I did not get a job that I had interviewed for.
There are many reasons why we have become so skilled at pretending. We know that the weak and vulnerable are more likely to be bullied and teased in a malicious and unpleasant way. Perhaps there are disappointments from the past or concerns for the future that will not let us be ourselves. Maybe we cannot accept that it is not any more a matter of course that everybody will be able to retire in a comfortable position or that everybody will have a chance to get ahead if they work hard enough, that it is no longer a matter of course that our children will be better off than we are in our own generation.
Søren Kierkegaard –– a contemporary fellow countryman of both Grundtvig and Andersen –– points out that the life of each of us has many components. We have all grown up under certain circumstances; certain events had an influence on us. We have been gifted with certain possibilities, certain flaws and imperfections limit us, but the human being, says Kierkegaard, has a relationship to itself. That means that the components of my life are not what I am; what I am, the self, is how I relate to those components. The components of my life are parts that I can take over or that I can reject. We become who we are in the relationships we establish with the components of our lives, and this relationship reveals itself as bad and inadequate when we try to hide what is going on in our lives. If we are not able to become ourselves by relating truthfully and sincerely to the components of our lives, we fall into what Kierkegaard calls despair. Kierkegaard claims that all forms of human despair are variations of the despair of a human being who does not want to be who he or she really is.
And now comes something that deeply surprised me when I first encountered it my reading of Kierkegaard, but it makes a lot of sense. Kierkegaard claims that the despair that is the root of all despair, is namely that I desperately do not want to be myself. This form of despair is deeply and inextricably connected with just the opposite, namely that I desperately want to be myself. By comparing myself with others who have more success and better luck than I have, I feel disadvantaged and poorly treated, upset and embarrassed, and therefore I do not want to be myself. But I can build a shield. As a disadvantaged person. I do not want to get rid of the identity that I have created for myself as someone who does want to continue being who I am now, somebody who supposedly has been treated in an unfair or disrespectful way, somebody who considers that he or she has good reasons to be angry.
Our need and compulsion to pretend, and the despair that leads us alternatively to desperately wanting not to be ourselves or desperately wanting indeed to be ourselves, can be revealed and can show up in a hard and demeaning way or in a mild and uplifting way. A reproach can be uttered with a threatening finger that hurts, saddens and discourages, or it can be uttered with a loving and well-meaning look and intention that raises and emboldens.
This morning our need and compulsion to pretend and our despair is revealed in a mild and uplifting way by a little child. Everyone in Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the Emperor’s New Clothes was longing to find out how stupid or incompetent the neighbors, the others, were. This is what convinced the emperor to let the false weavers weave the beautiful cloth with the magical properties. Whether on the loom or made into clothes, they would be invisible to anyone unfit for his or her job or to anyone particularly stupid –– that was the promise. The emperor would not only be able to show off a splendid suit; he would also be able to find out which of his people were not fit for the posts and to sort out the wise from the fools.
What the emperor did not imagine is that even his honest old chief minister would not be so honest to the emperor. I blame the minister more than I blame the emperor in this story. When the minister realized that he could not see anything, he kept it to himself. He did not want to risk being considered stupid or unfit to be minister. Therefore, he lied to the emperor that the cloth looked charming. The same lie happened when the other official was sent to see how the weaving was going. He also reported to the emperor that the weaving was magnificent.
When finally the emperor himself went to the weaving room and could not see any cloth because nothing was there to see, he did not accept that he did not see anything either. He thought, Am I unfit to be emperor? What a frightful notion! I mustn’t let myself think it –– nor must anyone else.” Very revealing words. When we pretend, we not only deceive others. We also deceive ourselves.
When the emperor finally began the procession wearing the supposedly new clothes, nobody dared to admit that he or she could not see any clothes at all. Not one of the emperor’s extravagant outfits had ever been so much praised. Everyone was afraid that the neighbor could see what he or she could not. Everyone was afraid to be seen as stupid or unfit for their jobs.
It took a little innocent child to reveal the truth that the emperor was naked. The false weavers had told the emperor that because of the special quality of the cloth he might feel that he was wearing nothing at all; the truth was that he did not have anything on.
The voice of that innocent child is the voice of Jesus Christ. This is why Jesus took the little children up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. And today and in this moment the little child says to you and to me that we should not pretend to be different than we are. Jesus and the children love us and accept us no matter what. I am experiencing the love of Jesus in the unconditional love of the two little stepdaughters that I have been blessed with at my grandpa age. Probably both your and my lives are characterized by our messiness, conflicts, and contradictions, but this is the context we should accept rather than simulating that we are different, rather than falling into despair when comparing ourselves with others . . . Once we accept our own messiness, it will be easier to accept and make room for the other’s messiness. We will see other people as persons who also have problems and face challenges that precisely you or me can help with.
The little child, that is, Jesus Christ, reveals to us in a mild and uplifting way that it does matter how we live our lives. Only if we stop pretending and abandon the position of being mere spectators of life, will we be able to commit ourselves to something important and meaningful. There are indeed new possibilities ahead—both for you and for me.
Once we let the little children, that is, Jesus Christ, reveal our uncomfortable truths, we gain authority to denounce the lies and pretenses of the authorities. Maybe the most important and meaningful task we can commit ourselves to is to contribute our grains of sand to the building of a society where the leaders and authorities will not lie and where the inhabitants will not be deceived by leaders who pander to our prejudices and fears, a society that will encourage children to speak their unwavering truth.
I will invite you to pray the Lord’s prayer in the first language you learned to say it:
Fader vor, du som er i himlene! Helliget vorde dit navn, komme dit rige, ske din vilje som i himlen således også på jorden; giv os i dag vort daglige brød, og forlad os vor skyld, som også vi forlader vore skyldnere, og led os ikke ind i fristelse, men fri os fra det onde. Thi dit er riget og magten og æren i evighed! Amen. Please rise as you are able for the blessing:
Herren velsigne dig og bevare dig! Herren lade sit ansigt give dig fred!
The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord’s face shine on you with grace and mercy. The Lord look upon you with favor and give you peace. Amen.
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Bridget Lois Jensen