Kirkin’ of the Tartans, 9 November 2019

Readings: Isaiah 58:6-11; John 15:9-17


Many of you might recognize me, but not in this getup. I’ve been the verger for this service for several years now, but my life has taken a distinct turn, which I will be glad to discuss with you in a different setting. If you’re really interested, come to the 10:30 Eucharist tomorrow and plan to stay after for coffee. I’m doing a talk then.

When Bob first asked me to give this “sermon,” I will admit to being slightly apprehensive. It’s a tough service for someone who, like myself, has committed his life to a preaching and teaching ministry. One of the prime directives of preaching is “know your audience.” Now, I know my home parish very well, and I like to think that I am beginning to know St. James pretty well, but I’m willing to bet that most of you do NOT attend church here and most of you are not even Episcopalian. So, I’m up here flying blind. I’m going to assumethat the greater part of you are some flavor of Christian. And if you are not, please walk with me for a few minutes anyway. You may still find something of value.

SO…why do we have a Kirkin’ of the Tartans at all?

We could go into the folklore of the English suppression of the wearing of the tartan and people hiding their tartans under cloaks as they went to the church to get them blessed. Or we could go to the actual history of the service’s creation in the 1940s by Rev. Peter Marshall, as Fr. Tim has done in the past. But the question remains, why do we still do it?

Well, it’s become a tradition, right? Do something once, it’s a change do something three times, it’s a tradition. At least, it seems that way in Episcopal churches.

But what’s so great about tradition? It’s just doing stuff somebody else did before, right? Is that a good enough reason to do this? Or is it just an excuse for a party (not that there’s anything wrong with a party)?

I think tradition is more than just an excuse.

At last year’s in conference in Denver of the Vergers’ Guild of the Episcopal Church, the Reverend Canon Broderick Greer was giving us an talk on the possibility of reform of the Book of Common Prayer – the book that contains our Episcopalian forms of worship and much of our theology. The question of tradition was brought up. “Why do we bother with tradition?”  “Tradition,” Canon Greer said, “is giving the dead a vote.”

Tradition is our connection to what has gone on before. By honoring tradition, we give the dead a vote in how we live our lives. Because remembering is important. It reminds us of who we are, of where we came from. If we forget what has gone before, we are rootless. Most of you are probably not aware that I was raised Southern Baptist, a denomination that does not in general set a great store by tradition. Now that I am Episcopalian, I have become more and more aware of its importance.

Since we have been coming to the Kirkin’, my wife has been researching our respective family trees. I had always thought my heritage was almost all Irish and Welsh, but she has discovered that I have roots in Clan McLeod, Clan Buchanan,  Clan Stewart, and others. I could wear a lot of different tartans, but I will likely settle on just one. By choosing one, I will be intentionally connecting with those ancestors, honoring them, as flawed and imperfect as many – if not all – of them were. Because…well…tradition.

This past Sunday, at my home parish in Poplar Bluff, we celebrated the Feast of All Saints, which is all about tradition. Remembering and honoring tradition, especially as exemplified by the Saints, is important. But it is just as important to understand how that tradition applies to our personal lives. Because if it doesn’t, if we don’t give that tradition meaning, we’re just playing. Putting on costumes, going through the motions, having a good time, but not much else.

How do we live out our lives as followers of God – however we conceive Him — within our shared heritage and tradition? Well, let’s take a look at a good example from Scottish tradition: St. Margaret of Scotland, whom we are celebrating this evening.

Margaret was the daughter of an English prince and granddaughter of a king. She was born in exile in Hungary in 1045, but through many adventures she ended up in Scotland, where she eventually married the widowed king, Malcom III, in 1070.

For many rulers, the ancient sources disagree on whether they were good or bad, but there doesn’t seem to be any disagreement about Margaret. She is consistently referred to as “strong, pure, and noble.”

Among other things, Margaret used her influence with her husband and his heir, her youngest son David, to work toward just rule. Every day, according to the chronicles, she served orphans and washed the feet of the poor before she ate anything. She established monasteries, assisted pilgrims, and interceded for the release of Englishmen who had been put into serfdom by the Normans. In private, she spent much of her time in prayer and reading.

The Gospel reading for our celebration of All Saints last week was the Beatitudes as found in Luke. There are things that are different about this passage in Luke that are different than the similar passage found in Matthew. Where Matthew’s Jesus speaks of spiritual well-being, Luke’s Jesus is much more concerned with immediate physical needs. Like Margaret.

Luke also has Jesus include a set of challenges to this of us who have resources – who are not poor, or hungry, or downtrodden. His message is “You will be like those poor folks over there one day.”

St. Margaret of Scotland gave us a tradition of bringing the Beatitudes into reality. And she isn’t alone. St. Damien the Leper, St. Martin des Porres, St. Teresa of Kolkata – none of them Scots, unfortunately — also show us the way. That is what we need to look at when we honor our traditions.

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

St. Margaret did not die for others, but she most certainly did dedicate her life to them. Can we not do the same? Can we, like Margaret, care for the poor and needy, and work to see that those who rule do so justly?

In an alternate Gospel reading tonight for the Feast of St. Margaret, Jesus says “Every Scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.

What is old is…our traditions. What is new is what we do with them.And both are a treasure.

So, by all means let us uphold our traditions. They are important, and we need to remember. But rather than blindly following and going through the motions, let us work to be what many of our forebears, like Margaret, also worked to be.

The light of the world.

The salt of the earth.

Let’s be Scottish saints.


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