Kirkin’ of the Tartans: June 7, 2015

Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher Jr.

June 7, 2015

(This sermon has been transcribed from live video.  Please click here to watch the video version.) 

When I was in college, I had a girlfriend, and she probably was my first serious girlfriend, and her parents truly, truly despised me. Try as I might, I could never seem to get them on side. I was always seen as just not good enough for her, and I tried everything I could to somehow convince them that I was a good guy. I spent one afternoon helping her father dig in his garden. He was trying to lay these railroad ties.  I produced all of my knowledge from my Italian grandfather that had taught me about laying stone and laying ties and things like that, and I put it together for him beautifully, digging the whole day, and he relented and had me to dinner afterwards.

One summer they sent her away to Paris at great expense so that our relationship could go under the slow torture of long distance between us. I was at the dinner before that and I was trying to speak French because they always spoke French, they were Francophiles. I was saying, “[Non i se, non i se 02:22], there’s no place here where she could learn French and I could see her?”

The relationship was, in the end, doomed, but there was one critical moment that I always think about, or I think about every now and then. And it was this moment in which they decided to host my parents when they came to a parent’s weekend at the university I was attending. I was attending Brown, and her parents had all gone to Harvard, and so there was a – there you go, lesser institution. I suddenly realized in the midst of this that it was actually my mother’s and my ethnicity that was the issue. My mom is Italian. Somehow it came up and somehow it came up and somehow I realized it was one of the things they didn’t like about me was my ethnicity. So I called my mom and I tried to prepare her for the tea, and I suggested that she might want to try shopping at Talbots or Lord and Taylor at the time.

I didn’t see them for some reason until they came right at the tea. We met at the tea. I don’t remember why. So I arrived at the house and I saw my mom take off her jacket, and she had this incredible ensemble on that had a dominant theme of polka dot. It was both a little flashy but also incredibly beautiful. Afterwards, she said to me, “I tried and thought about what you said to me, and I thought it was most important for me to be me.”

The name of the family was McJennett. They were Scottish and proud of it. I thought about this exchange this morning because right before I was getting ready for the early service, I had a friend loan me a kilt. I had it all laid out in the guest room, and just as I was about to put it on I remembered that story and I remember my mother. And I thought that the best way for me today to be with you is to be me, without a drop of Scottish blood, with my complicated ethnicity, with my own little story. I thought it’d be wrong for me to efface that by putting on a kilt. Because as important as this day is, and I promise you that I will treasure this day as long as I am your rector, the importance of our relationship together is going to be predicated not on some kind of feigned and assimilated unity, but on a deeper relationship founded in Jesus Christ.

We have been called together in relationship so that we might discover the truth of one another together and to celebrate and know each other in all of our particularity. Because it is in all of that particularity that God has created us and redeemed us and now sanctifies us with God’s spirit. So it’s okay for me to be me today, and it’s okay for you to be you. We are here together not because of a shared kinship that is flesh and blood but shared membership in the body of Christ. I think this goes with the grain, actually, of what the whole Kirkin’ O’ the Tartans tradition teaches.

Over the past month or so I had been doing a lot of research on it, and there’s a lot of debate among different scholars about what is the exact moment in which this tradition started. Now, some will tell you that it’s from the active prescription that outlawed and banned the showing of the Tartan in Scotland in 1746 and that this tradition began when at church time Scots would show their Tartans and it would be blessed by the priest at church.

There are others who are going to argue that actually the origins of this practice started in the 1660s and 1670s by Scottish Presbyterians in these prayer services they would have in the open because their church had been outlawed. And so they would set up sentries at the different points, and these sentries would practice taking an—they would look to keep clear so that the prayer service wouldn’t be overrun by governmental authorities seeking to break it up.

Finally, there is a deeper tradition that is found in one of the great books of Scottish folk lore which is this prayer that Scott weavers would pray when they would weave a tartan for a son and a husband, a tartan that would be worn in battle. I found that, and I’ll just read it for you. “May the man of this clothing never be wounded. May torn he never be. With time he goes into battle or combat, may the sanctuary shield of the Lord be his. With time he goes into battle or combat, may the sanctuary shield of the Lord be his.”

Finally, there is the moment in which Kirkin’ of the Tartans comes out in the 20th century on April 27, 1941. Peter Marshall who is then the pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., in order to raise funds to support the war effort in Britain preaches a sermon called “Kirking of the Tartans”. At each of these moments, Scottish culture and Scottish ethnicity was under threat and they were facing the decision, do they assimilate or do they assimilate or do they stay themselves? Do they struggle or do they surrender? At each time, Scottish culture and Scottish people chose their ethnicity. It was an ethnicity that was being attacked, undermined. And perhaps the best way you and I can honor this practice today is to ask ourselves the question: Whose ethnicity is being attacked today? Who am I being called to defend? What does it mean for us to be together in all of our particularities, following a new politics of compassion and communion, rather than a politics of domination and empire?

In today’s gospel, Jesus is involved in this rhetorical combat with not only the scribes and Pharisees but also the members of his family who think he might be insane. At the end of the gospel, Jesus says, “Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my mother, my brothers, my sisters, my fathers.” In doing so, Jesus created this moment in which a kingdom was founded by His own action and words, and that kingdom would have all of who we are and yet more because everything of who we are was now to be transfigured by the gospel. And each of us was called to follow that kingdom by laying everything that is ours on the altar of God’s reconciliation in Christ. How can you live into that reconciliation today? How can you bear witness to all the ways that the particularity of the people of God has been undermined? How can you welcome the stranger and carry on that politics of compassion and communion? These are the questions you and I must ask to do honor to this day into the heritage in which it comes. Amen.




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