The King Has no Clothes

Sunday 9th February 2014
Year A, The Forth Sunday before Lent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
1 Corinthians 2:1-12
Matthew 5:13-20

Once upon a time, as we are told by Hans Christian Anderson, there was a king who was rich, vain and gullible, who was talked into buy a suit of magical new clothes. But on the day of the grand parade when the king came out, newly attired, there was  a little boy in the crowd who had not been let in on the secret; and he stared in wonder and said:

"Look at the king. Look at the King! Look at the king, the king the king!

"The king is in the altogether, the altogether, but altogether, he's altogether as naked as the day that he was born!"

Now apart from the delicious rudeness of the scene which I enjoyed as a boy of ten when I first saw Danny Kay sing the song, I have always liked the tale because it was a naive child who pointed out the folly of the king and his courtiers.

A modern variant on this tale is the aphorism coined at the beginning of the massive financial crash of September 2008: when the tide goes out, you will see who isn't wearing a bathing suit.

This week I'm going to be interviewed during a seminar on charity leadership; and I've seen  the questions in advance, and they're all about good governance, and recruitment and diversity and consultation and induction; which are all jolly good things in themselves; but what I will be saying is simple: you can have all the procedure in the world but getting procedure right doesn't fix anything. What goes wrong in charities and in all other corporate situations is that people are not courageous enough and many are simply cowards. It's vital to have people in the room who say to the powerful and the plausible: "But you aren't, intellectually and morally speaking, wearing any clothes".

As I began to think about the words of Matthew's Gospel, a story came on the news that more than 1/3 of people in our supposedly Christian country don't know that the story of the birth of Jesus is contained in the Bible and the same number have not heard of the Crucifixion.

From these disparate elements, three thoughts emerge:

First, it is just too easy to stay quiet when the plausible and the powerful want their way. Our current society is crammed with examples of watch dogs diverted by their overflowing bowls; what is killing honesty in our society is not fierce confrontation, but comfort. We are all mesmerised by worldly wisdom. But Saint Paul warns us against this; we have to reject the wisdom of this earth and embrace the foolishness of the Cross. Imagine Saint Paul and the Apostles telling Jews and Gentiles that the Jesus they follow was condemned to death and died in ignominious circumstances as a common criminal. Compared with that, telling our confused and venal society that there is a better way in Jesus is surely not so hard.

Secondly, thinking about the words of Saint Matthew, we really must start to put our light on a stand instead of hiding it under a bushel. We are in danger of doing what society wants and making Christianity into a private preference instead of a public benefit. And although we have been under a great deal of pressure, we have brought pressure on ourselves by concentrating on private morality and personal atonement rather than on Christ's mission to bring about His Kingdom on earth.

Thirdly, I have sometimes heard it said that my speech is a little direct but Matthew tells us that we must be salty in proclaiming Christ. The Gospel of Jesus is tough, it asks a lot of all of us, and here we are, comfortable people, sitting down, puzzled by the narrowness of the eye of the needle, our camels loaded  with all kinds of luxuries. We have enjoyed our season of the crib; but now that Candlemas has gone, we must turn to the cross. The wonder child is to be murdered, not a babe in his mother's arms but a corpse.

So what are we to do. Well, first of all we need, in modern jargon, to take some 'ownership' of the problem. A great many comfortable Christians are made to feel profoundly uncomfortable by fundamentalist Evangelicals but at least they are speaking out; and if we are not prepared to make Christianity not only the centre of our private lives but also the focus of our public utterance, then we have no grounds for complaint. Personally, as I said a few weeks ago, I'm not very keen on the notion of "mission" as the mission is Christ's not ours, but I do believe in living the life; and part of living the life is talking the talk.

And what should this talk be about. Well, primarily it should not be about the conditions under which we might enjoy some form of personal salvation, our talk should be of justice and mercy. Our passage in Matthew today from the Sermon on the Mount follows closely on the opening Beatitudes which all speak of social conscience and social action.

Above all, a necessary precondition for all of this is to take our own Christianity seriously. We all tell each other, almost every Sunday, that Christianity isn't just a matter of going to church on Sunday. Well, we need to ask ourselves what we do for Jesus on the other days of the week; and perhaps it might be a good idea to make a resolution to do something more for Jesus during Lent.

And finally, we must stop being intimidated by the incessant cowardice and selfishness which floods our media and our lives every day. We must be innocents for Christ, glorying in the Cross, little children pointing out that the king has no clothes.