Sunday, May 27, 2007

A Pentecost Parable

A Sermon by the Rev. Jason A. Fout,
(Being an adaptation of a tale by the Rev. Timothy Schenck*,
itself an adaptation of a classic tale by Hans Christian Andersen)
Delivered in Selwyn College Chapel,
Pentecost Sunday, 27 May 2007

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Today we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, the time after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension when God sent the Holy Spirit to the disciples. We heard in the reading from Acts this morning how what seemed like tongues of fire rested on the heads of the disciples when they were filled with the Spirit. Historically, that tongue of fire has been symbolised in the bishop’s high pointed hat, called a mitre.

I remind you of that just as a bit of background for a story I would like to tell this morning. The story is adapted from a friend of mine, The Reverend Timothy Schenck, who in turn adapted it from Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.

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Many years ago there lived a Bishop. He was so enamoured with liturgical vestments that he spent all his time and all his discretionary funds in order to be well vested. He did not read much Scripture or theology and the only joy he took in parish visitations was in the ceremonial processions where he could show off his fine collection of copes, mitres and chasubles.

Between services, parishioners would ask, “Where is the Bishop?” Instead of answering, “He is meeting with the vestry” or “He is in consultation with the rector,” the Bishop’s Chaplain would reply, “The Bishop is admiring his vestments in the sacristy mirror.”

Time passed merrily in the cathedral city.

One day, two men arrived, saying they were expert makers of vestments, but they were, in fact, clever robbers. They pretended that they knew how to weave cloth of the most beautiful liturgical colours and magnificent patterns. Moreover, they said, the vestments woven from this magic cloth could not be seen by anyone who was unworthy of the office he held.

“These must be splendid vestments indeed!” thought the Bishop. “If I had a matching cope and mitre made of this magic cloth, I could find out at once what priests in my diocese are not good enough for the positions they hold. These vestments must be woven for me immediately.” And he ordered large sums from the diocesan treasury to be given to the weavers in order that they might begin their work at once.

So the two men who pretended to be makers of vestments set up two looms in the basement of the cathedral. They went about as though they were working busily, though in reality they did nothing at all.

After some little time passed, the Bishop said to himself, “I should like to know how the vestments are coming along. I am a little worried about going myself to look at the cloth because they said that a man unfit for his office would be unable to see the material. Surely I am quite safe - but all the same I think it best to send someone else first.”
After some thought the Bishop said, “I will send my faithful and trustworthy Canon to the Ordinary. He is a man of sense and no one can be more suitable for his office than he.”

So the old Canon to the Ordinary went into the cathedral basement where the wicked men were working. “What can be the meaning of this?” thought the old man, opening his eyes very wide. “I cannot see the least bit of thread on the looms!” However, he did not speak his thoughts out loud.

The men who were pretending to weave very politely asked him whether the design pleased him and whether the colours were not very beautiful. The poor Canon to the Ordinary looked but he could not see anything on the looms for the very good reason that there was nothing there. But, of course, he did not know this and thought only that he must be a foolish man unfit for the office of Canon to the Ordinary. “Dear me,” he said to himself, “I must never tell anyone that I could not see the cloth.”

“Well, Reverend Canon sir, does our work please you?” asked one of the weavers. Adjusting his spectacles, the Canon to the Ordinary said quickly, “Oh it is most beautiful. Yes, I will go the Bishop at once and tell him how very wonderful I think it is.”

The Bishop was pleased by the report brought by his Canon to the Ordinary and soon sent the Cathedral Dean to find out how soon the vestments would be ready. It was, of course, just the same with the Dean as it had been with the Canon to the Ordinary. He looked at the looms on all sides but could see nothing at all but the empty frames.

“Do not the vestments appear as beautiful to you, Very Reverend Dean, as they did to the Canon to the Ordinary?” asked the men.

“It must be that I am not fit for the very good and comfortable office I hold.” thought the Cathedral Dean. “However, no one shall ever know anything about it.” And at once he turned to the robbers and praised the material he could not see. He then returned at once to the Bishop and said, “Indeed, your Grace, the vestments which the weavers are making are extraordinarily magnificent. They will be ready by Pentecost.”

And now at last the Bishop himself wished to see the marvellous cope and mitre being fashioned for him. He took with him a few of his other canons, along with the Canon to the Ordinary and the Cathedral Dean. As soon as the false weavers heard the Bishop coming, they worked away harder than ever, though they still did not weave a single thread though the empty looms.

“Is not the cloth magnificent?” asked the Canon to the Ordinary and the Cathedral Dean as the party reached the cathedral basement.

“How is this?” said the Bishop to himself, “I can see nothing! This is indeed terrible! Am I unfit to be Bishop? Do I not deserve this position and these vestments?”

“Oh! The vestments are beautiful!” he cried out loud. “I am delighted with them.” And he smiled most charmingly for on no account would he say that he could not see what his Canon to the Ordinary and Cathedral Dean had praised so much.

All his entourage now strained their eyes hoping to see something in the looms but they could see no more than the others. Nevertheless, they all exclaimed, “How beautiful!” and advised the Bishop to wear them at the great Pentecost Day celebration at the Cathedral.

When the vestments were pronounced complete, the Bishop and the entire diocesan staff came to see the weavers’ work. The false weavers raised their arms as though they were holding up something to be seen and said, “Here is the chasuble! Here is the stole and cope and mitre! They are all light as a cobweb. When dressed in these vestments one might fancy that one has on nothing at all. That, however, is the wonderful thing about this delicate magic cloth.” And all the Bishop’s staff nodded enthusiastically, though not one of them could see anything at all.

On the Feast of Pentecost, before the great procession through the cathedral was to take place, the Bishop entered the sacristy to be vested by the rogue weavers. He put on his alb and the weavers pretended to help him into his vestments. The altar party all cried out, “How splendid the Bishop looks in his new vestments! What beautiful colours! What a design! They are indeed princely robes!”

The Verger announced to the Bishop that it was time for the great procession to begin. The Verger led the procession, followed by the thurifer, the crucifer, the acolytes, the choir of men and boys, various canons including the Canon to the Ordinary, the Sub-Deacon, the Deacon, the Cathedral Dean and finally the Bishop himself. The entire congregation turned to face the Bishop as he began his grand entrance through the nave.

“Oh, how beautiful are our Bishop’s new vestments!” the people cried. “How gracefully the cope sits upon his shoulders!” In fact, no one would admit that he or she could not see the vestments which everyone seemed to think so beautiful for fear of being called a simpleton or unfit for their office.

Suddenly, as the majestic opening hymn drew to a close and there was a moment of silence before the opening acclamation, a young chorister spoke. “But I can’t see anything – it’s like the Bishop has no vestments on at all!!” What had been meant as a hushed murmur had accidentally come out loudly and clearly, amplified by the cathedral’s acoustics. The chorister turned a deep red.

“Young man, what did you say!?” shouted the bishop indignantly.

At that very moment, the bishop was brought up short. He paused. He felt his face growing red from embarrassment, and there was a burning sensation on his scalp. And then he repeated his question to the boy, in an altogether different tone.

“Please, young man, did you say that you can’t see any vestments?”

The boy, scared, just nodded quietly.

The bishop stood there, silence filling the cathedral. Then, looking around at his clergy and parishioners, he said “I can’t see them, either.”

He went on, “From the beginning they have been invisible to me. For weeks I have been kept awake at night, anxious that I am not worthy of my position, and afraid that someone would find out. I would be ridiculed. Everyone would know I was unworthy. I would have to leave, in shame.”

The bishop went on, “But then, what this young man said hit me like a ray of light in utter darkness. I realised in an instant that it was true: I’m not worthy; on my own, I don’t merit this position. I’m only here – all of us are only here – because of the grace of God. We didn’t earn it. We don’t possess it. It’s a gift; it’s a gracious gift of God. It’s because of God’s love for all of us. I’m not here as your bishop because I deserve it.

“At the same time that I realised I am who I am as a gift from God, I also realised that that means I’m here not as an honour for myself but to serve you well. I haven’t done that. I’ve been vain and selfish and conceited. I hope that, in time, you will forgive me for that.”

“In the meantime, thank you young man for your brave words. Now, let us carry on celebrating the Feast of Pentecost, remembering how God sent the Spirit of his Son to the church, that we might serve one another and be a blessing to the world.” At that, the service went on.

And though everyone now admitted that they could see no vestments, still there were several people who later insisted that, in the darkness of the cathedral, they could make out the dim outlines of a mitre on the bishop’s head.

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As a postscript, I should say that the bishop actually realized not two but three things:
After the service, he caught up with the clever robbers. He explained to them that he knew they had deceived him and the people, but he had learned a valuable lesson from it. He wasn’t going to have them arrested; in fact, he was still willing to pay them their fee. Or instead, if they wanted, they could stay in the community, learn a legitimate trade, and become valued members of the church. It was up to them. And so they decided…well, that’s a story for another time.

*The material contributed by Tim Schenck has been used with his express permission.

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