Fairytales: The Emperor’s New Clothes by Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons

2022 November 1

Fairytales: The Emperor’s New Clothes

Ana Levy-Lyons

October 16, 2022

First Unitarian, Brooklyn

Sermon Part 1

This week a number of you received text messages supposedly from me, asking you to buy gift cards for some good cause. This was a scam. Just for the record, I will never text you out of the blue and ask you to do me a favor by buying gift cards. (God help me if I ever actually do need a gift card or if a Nigerian prince ever really does contact me…)

The art of the scam goes back probably as long as humans have been around. And it is a scam that is the starting point of our story today – that of the Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen. A pair of swindlers come into town and they prey on the human weaknesses of the people – of the king, of his court officials, and of the ordinary townspeople. Why do they do it? Like any scammer, they do it to make a buck. They keep billing the king for fine yarn, which they never buy and never use, and just like the scammer will keep asking for more gift cards after you buy one, they reel the king in and keep asking for more money for more imaginary yarn. It’s possible that they also take great delight in exploiting the hypocrisy and emptiness of the pomp and circumstance of royal power.

This year in our worship series we’re exploring classic European fairytales. Like the biblical stories from last year, fairytales are mythic stories that are deeply embedded in our cultural substrata because they evoke archetypes. They tell deep truths about ourselves. They often have many versions and many sources. In this case, Hans Christian Andersen may have adapted this story from a medieval Spanish story of swindlers who claim to make clothing that’s only visible to certain people. And that may have come from an even older Indian version of the story. But these stories didn’t include the child who blows the whistle on the whole thing.

So where did the character of the child come from? The child may come from Andersen’s own life. Apparently when he was a kid, he was once standing in a crowd with his mother eagerly waiting to catch a glimpse of the king – Frederick VI. When they finally saw the king, Andersen said, loudly, “Oh, he’s nothing more than a human being!” His mother angrily shushed him, saying, “Have you gone mad, child?” Because madness, culturally speaking, is about not seeing what everyone else sees – or seeing something that no one else sees. The fool on the hill sees the world spinning round.

The mother in The Emperor’s New Clothes does the same thing. She shushes her child. She calls her foolish. She desperately tries to retain social control. Why? Because she is scared. What would happen if society’s lens were shattered and everyone admitted what was really there? Would it be madness? Indeed, when the little girl cries out that the emperor is naked, it spreads like wildfire and everyone starts yelling, “yeah, he’s naked! He’s not wearing anything at all!” Anarchy! Suddenly everyone has the courage to admit the truth. Except for the emperor himself who just continues strutting his stuff. Doubling down instead of admitting you’re wrong is a common tactic of the powerful. It must have been great to watch…

Former Child monologue 1:

It wasn’t so easy, you know!

[Ana: “What? Excuse me, I’m trying to preach a sermon here. Who are you?”]

I happen to be the only person in this room who knows the truth about what happened that day. Because I was there, all those years ago.

[Ana: “You were there?”]

Not only was I there, I was the little girl who cried out, “the emperor is naked!” That part you got right. But then you make it sound like everybody instantly saw the light, and then lifted me up on their shoulders and sang, “For she’s a jolly good fellow.” And we all lived happily ever after. I’ll have you know; it wasn’t like that at all! They hated me. They hissed at me. My mother, may she rest in peace, was absolutely mortified. I don’t think she ever forgave me for making such a spectacle of our family. And for months afterwards people would avert their eyes or even cross to the other side of the street when they saw me coming. I was a pariah. It was only later, in secret, in people’s homes and in shady taverns, that they started to murmur about it – “remember that little girl at the emperor’s parade…?” And one after another they started admitting to each other that they couldn’t see the clothes either. And by the time it was all out in public, everyone was pretending that they had said the emperor was naked all along.

Sermon part 1 continued…

Point well taken. Thank you. If I may recap: you were a prophet. And it’s sometimes no fun to be a prophet when people are not ready to hear your words.

With the addition of the character of the child-prophet, the Emperor’s New Clothes becomes a story of political and social satire. It pokes fun at all of the socially polite fictions we tell ourselves to this day – the fictions about democracy that keep illegitimate rulers in power; the fictions about nature that keep suicidal ecological practices legal; the fictions about business that keep cruel economic systems humming along. It’s acceptable in our culture to advocate for technocratic solutions to particular problems – the change of a law or policy or mechanism. But start to prophecy about the fairytale that is whole system? The figures of corporate and political power get very nervous.

Because to keep a massive fiction afloat requires a great deal of collective consent and energy. Everyone has to agree to uphold the basic framework on which it hangs. And sometimes, with enough support, the fiction can become real. Like money itself, whose value is completely dependent on the faith of basically everyone. Money these days is nothing but digital numbers drifting like ghosts in computer hard drives and yet it has such meaning that people starve for the lack of it.

Hymn: Now I Recall My Childhood

Sermon Part 2

So in The Emperor’s New Clothes, the court officials and the emperor and the townspeople all pretend to be able to see the fine garments. Or maybe they will themselves to actually see them, so great is their desire to be normal. But either way, their sense of self and their social status depends on perpetuating the fiction. Everyone not only claims that they can see the royal garments, they gush about how beautiful they are. They collaborate with the swindlers; they give the scam color and life – they commit to it. And anyone who threatens their precarious worldview – who gives voice to their doubts and pushes them out of their comfort zone, gets punished. And woe be to that person. Just ask Greta Thunberg. The child at the parade, I imagine, learned her lesson the hard way and never again tried to pull anything like that.

Former Child monologue 2

Wrong again!

[Ana: Excuse me?]

You said I never tried anything like that again, but that’s wrong – I did. In fact, as hard as it was in the short run to be the only one who said what was obviously true, that moment changed my life. I look back on it as a kind of rebirth. It was like something inside me burst out – something real and true. And I suddenly I could see in a different way – not through the eyes of the adults in my life, but through my eyes. This is going to sound weird, but it was like I gained my own eyes. The eyes in my head. I had always been told that I should trust the vision of others; but now I saw that I could trust my own vision too. And that sometimes I could understand things that even the most powerful people in the land – even the emperor – couldn’t understand. I could see the world spinning round. And so for the rest of my life, whenever I had that burst of clarity, I would speak out. And when people called me a fool, I didn’t mind. I kind of felt bad for them actually. Because I knew that they were desperately trying to hang on to their fairytales.

Sermon part 2 continued…

It sounds like it was really a kind of spiritual awakening. Like the world shifted on its axis. You realized that the invisible clothes were just a social fabric – a fabrication that everyone was weaving together. And that if that was the case, then maybe other aspects of reality might be a fabrication as well.

In this sense, there’s a mystical dimension to the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. When a child’s vision cuts through the agreed upon reality, it destabilizes that reality. And it gives a kind of freedom, a kind of permission to everyone else, to all of us. To step outside of what we think we know; to step outside of the systems of our relationships and money and power and look at them all afresh.

Now to be clear, not every lone opinion is in the right. Pushing back against the status quo doesn’t always mean we’re doing God’s work. It may not be wise; it may not be moral. Sometimes the consensus view is the consensus view because it is true. And to try to tear it down, as so many leaders of a certain political party are doing these days, can be dangerous. And so a process of discernment must always be standing guard. We make a mistake when we embrace extreme individualism, scorning the wisdom of those who came before us and others in our community. This is where the spiritual work of humility comes in – to know that sometimes our own vision is incomplete and we need each other.

But we also make a mistake when we are too passive, too eager to fit in with the crowd, and too accepting of the social fabrications of this world. There will always be scammers out there, ready to take advantage of what we want to believe to be true. Hans Christian Andersen gave us the figures of both the scammer and the child who is a part of each of us. This is where the spiritual work of honesty comes in. To seek the honesty of a child who, in their own innocence and literal thinking, can often perceive things more clearly. As the Unitarian apostate fool-on-the-hill Henry David Thoreau said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”


Let’s pray together. God of insight and power of inner wisdom, give us the understanding of a child. Help us to cut through the social fabrications of our lives to reveal the naked truth of things as they are. May we have the humility to learn from others and lean on our community for a reality check. May we have the honesty to question accepted norms. May we learn to trust our own vision – the eyes in our own head as the world is spinning round. And may we have the boldness to speak our truth when we know it’s time.

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