Kirkin’ of the Tartans

The following was the sermon message, entitled ‘Kirkin’ of the Tartans’ delivered on Tartan Sunday of 2014…

What is the Kirkin of the Tartans…  Well you might as well read and find out…

As you all likely know by now, my Dad’s family is Italian; very Italian.   We have relatives that immigrated to the US as late as the 1920’s, some that stayed, and some that went back.   I have a first cousin that lives in Rome and a whole family line that spider webs all over Italy, starting smack where the ankle would be in the boot.

For my father this identity was critically important.   His family spoke Italian, the ate Italian, and they lived in heavily fortified Italian areas.   This was part of heritage for which he was and is incredibly proud.     That identification by default became ours.

As much as my Dad history was open, my mom’s is more subtle. After I became a pastor, my family entrusted the Family Bible into my care, and in it, I discovered hundreds of years of births and deaths that revealed a family whose American tree twisted and turned all the way back to English settlers that arrived to America just over a decade after the Mayflower arrived.     On that tree, a large chunk of long forgotten relatives began arriving in the l800’s from Scotland.

Over the last ten years, I have slowly and deliberately pieced together a history that has kept me spell bound.     The things that I have discovered about my family are equally colorful as the most colorful of stories that have arrived from the Italian side.     It seems that the MacFarlane clan brings with it a great deal of color as well. Many in Scotland call the full moon, McFarlane’s lantern as it was on nights of full moon that the clan would go about their chief business; cattle-rustling.   Couple this with some of the Italian corners of my family tree, and you would think my dna may be better wired for another line of work than the ministry.

It seems everywhere you turn, there is a great deal of Scottish stories of this bent, but you can let your jealousy rest, for it has been said that close to 20 million people in the United States have Scottish ancestry, of which most more don’t know. This is a Scottish country. There can be little doubt of that reality.

In the United States, half of those who signed the Declaration of Independence were of Scottish descent; 13 governors of the newly created United States were of Scottish descent . . . As were 11 Presidents, half the Secretaries of the Treasury and a third of the Secretaries of State.   It has often been said without the Scots there would be no America.

And for those who desire to boldly proclaim that Scottish heritage, a simple piece of fabric serves as ultimate proclamation.   The Tartan is an elaborate weaving of colors into a plaid whose look defines one’s place within the Scottish world.   Each family has a particular tartan that is registered for their use;

If you belong to that clan McFarlane, your tartan looks like this:


Today the Tartan goes well beyond indicating your family tree. As a matter of fact, 34 US states have their own registered tartan.   They stand alongside over 600 non family tartans registered on behalf of American companies, cities, military organizations ,fire departments, schools & universities.   There are s sports teams, private individuals, and even shoe makers that can claim a reserved tartan.

Alan L. Bean, the lunar module pilot of Apollo 12 took half a yard of MacBean tartan to the moon and back in 1969.

To help the sale of War Bonds in 1942 Walt Disney designed the MacDuck tartan for curmudgeonly old Scrooge MacDuck – Mickey’s Scottish uncle.

Today there are Tartans to denote your Jewish or Islamic faith.

Even the Methodist Church has a registered Tartan.   If you are a Methodist, and you would like to claim your Methodist identity in a very subtle way; wear the following tartan:

umc tartan

But as you do, no this; by wearing the tartan, you are declaring something more than an affinity for plaid. In ancient times the tartan would tell the world your last name, where you lived, what King your clan served.

It is no wonder that over the course of Scottish history, the tartan also gained nearly religious significance.     This piece of fabric became not only a sign of your identity, your family, and your faith.   The tartar signified what was truly important to you, and in an age when our identity was inseparable from our faith, it told the world what you believed.

Despite the reverence shown to it today, and the desire to ‘tartanize’ our world, there was a time when wearing the tartan was against the law.

It’s a story of a time of war across Scotland, Ireland, and England when the tartan became a symbol of disobedience.   Its also one of the reasons for taking a moment out of our calendar a couple of times each year, and celebrating the Sunday of Tartans.

Although the Kirking of the Tartans – or the more elaborate blessing of the Tartans – was likely an American invention of Scottish descendents, that remembrance along with Tartan Sunday, calls us to remember that time when wearing the tartan could get you arrested, jailed, and even kicked out of Scotland all together.

In the tail end of the 1600’s the King of England was the Scottish King james VII of Scotland. In England he was called James II.   James had this one pretty substantial character fault.   James was Roman Catholic in the age of the reformation.

In an age of protestant and catholic fighting, between the years 1685 and 1689 King James ruled over England.   Yet, because of his catholic faith, he was forced from his throne and sent into exile by his daughter Mary, and her husband William of Orange, who was a Dutch prince.

The fights for a return to the Catholic throne became known as the Jacobite (after the Latin word for James) Rebellion in England and it lasted almost 60 years.     In Scotland it pitted one family against the next.

Fifty years after James was forced from the throne, his grandson, Charles Edward Stuart or Bonnie Prince Charlie as he is known by the English and Scots, decided at 25, it was now his time to fight for his rightful place on the throne.   From his exile in France, he sneaks into the western Highlands of Scotland, and rallies a contingent of 1500 Highlanders loyal to the Catholics.

Although it has been said that his campaign came within days of conquering London, and is seen as the last battle on English soil, his cause was not a successful one.   In the Battle of Culloden, Charles listened to his ego and desire over the advice of his more seasoned officers and led his 5000 kilt wearing Scottish clansmen to a slaughter at the hands of 10,000 professional soldiers lining the opposite side of a smoke filled field.

In defeat Bonnie Prince Charlie fled the battlefield. He was hid for some time in the highlands, but eventually escaped Scotland and returned to France. He lived out the remainder of his life in exile; trying to gain support for his cause, conducting a string of affairs and drinking excessively. He was a hunted man with a price of £30,000 on his head, in a time when the average person had a net worth of less than £2.

His final days were sad. He grew old, ugly and embittered. He blamed his Scots supporters for his defeat. He died, immensely overweight and alcoholic, at the age of 67.

Before his death, and as Charles hid in the highlands, the crown sought revenge.   It executed anyone even thought of being a friend of Charles, and confiscated family lands.   Finally, it was a law called the Act of Proscription in 1747 that caused the greatest insult.

The law declared that no man or boy, within Scotland, will be permitted wear or put on any item indicating a highland heritage.   This included plaids, kilts and tartans. Bag pipes were also made illegal. The penalty for a first offense earned you six months in prison and, a second got you immediately deported to the colonies or executed.

The Americanized and much legendary, understanding of the story tells of a people devastated by the war as well as this law   Again, the tartan and kilt, expressed to the world just who they are.   Some equate this law to telling the Jew that they cannot wear the Tallit, or the Muslim or Hindu being forced to surrender their head covering.   Maybe in the US, it would be the equivalent for our un-churched world of losing their Red Sox, Yankee, or Patriots jersey.

The legend has it that in the end, the Scots would have none of it.   In secret, the seeds of bravery were planted. Beginning with only a few at the start, and growing in number overtime, the angry Scots would sneak a small piece of their tartan into church on Sunday. At prearranged moment the families would clutch the tartan and in defiance the priest would say a blessing out loud.   It became a secret blessing to that heritage and that identity that was now forced to be hidden.

Eventually, those secret tartans became a little less secret with each passing month, and soon they became outright acts of protest.   They became a very loud statement that their faith was not something to be hid.   They became a statement about their refusal to hide their identity away in dark corners or back closets.   Their tartans were nothing more than a piece of fabric but in them was born courage. The tartan reminded them that faith was risky, and sometimes it required you to stand strong in the face of those who tell you to sit down.

Today, the Kirking of the Tartan is a moment where we are reminded that – as people of faith – we are called to stand up precisely when the world tells you to sit down.     It reminds us that being true to your faith doesn’t take us to easy and comfortable places.   It reminds us that faith requires us picking up a cross that often dumps us into the mud of Calvary.

Soon after reading this remade version of history, I quickly became enthralled with the story of those people sneaking those tartans into church; in whatever form it took. The mental image of men and women under the fear of banishment risking everything to sneak some little pieces of who they are into church is a powerful one.   I quickly decided that this might help us as a people who have it easy, be reminded that when faith is easy its not fully expressed or lived out.   For this moment, and this discussion, I choseto remember a particular story for our scripture; that of John the Baptist.

To quickly recap at a 10,000 foot level, John is an odd bird. He is almost a side show freak, wearing animal skins and eating bugs at the corner of the desert, but what he was doing was something much more powerful.   This one man, wading waist deep in the Jordan River, was laying a giant smack down on the religious establishment in a way that was anything but subtle.

He was preaching about a broken religious and economic system, and people were listening.   To make matters worse he was offering the fix; a do-over.

But do-over’s were the ownership and the responsibility of the temple and the religious elite. It certainly wasn’t the responsibility of half crazy wild men.     The temple leaders were insulted, and they were outraged.   They were even more enraged when they heard of John preaching that someone was coming who would make him look small in comparison. He was talking revolution and rebellion.

As happens to most prophets, it was decided that he had to be silenced.   In a moment of depravity, his fate is sealed. Very quickly John was put to death.

Shortly after, when Jesus hears of John’s death, the scripture details his response in a way that might be lost to most modern readers.   We are told in most versions, that when Jesus heard of John’s death, he withdrew to Galilee.   The word ‘withdrew’ seems to come with a connotation of slinking away or retreat.

We need to be clear on this; That is not what happened.

Instead Jesus, when he hears of John’s death, he stands up.   He stands up and proceeds to head straight to Galilee, the very epicenter of Herod’s rule, influence, and control.   Jesus proceeds to basically, walk right into the center of Herod’s world, and say; see that man that you were so afraid of?   That man that you had to kill to keep silent?   He warned you of another coming.   Well, Guess what? Im here.

That is the call of faith that is forgotten in our comfortable worlds.  If there is a truth that is perfectly clear in all that we do, it is that faith doesn’t take you to comfortable places, but rather the harsh and rocky ones.   Faith requires – faith demands – that you stand up, and in some transformative way, be present in the ugliness.

The world may tell you to sit down and shut up, but that voice of God that bounces around in your head and gut; will get louder.   Faith demands that we stand face to face with the ugliness, even if we have to travel to the doorstep of a king, and knock on his door to do it.     How incredible would it be if people of faith stood up and said together, “remember that man or woman you were so afraid of? Guess what I am here!”

Maybe that is a part of Lent that cannot be too quickly glossed over. If Lent is about figuring our how to both respond to God more readily and to live the life we are called to be; maybe we need to take some time and listen to that call. Maybe we need to ask what small act of defiance are we called to embrace too.

In the end, the truth remains that each of us, has been sneaking our own little piece of fabric around: whether you care to admit it or not.   Maybe the little piece of fabric that we hide among our day to day isn’t a tartan, but a reminder that whatever call that God has put on your heart can not be silenced or shut off, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us, our family, or the world around us.

Here is the simplest rule of our faith; what may start out as a simple, silent, and solitary act of defiance against the way of the world, we eventually become world changing.

Maybe the true blessing of the Tartan was that something so small, and so insignificant can remind us to embrace our heritage, to embrace our courage, to stand tall, and declare ‘This I’ll defend’

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