This sermon was preached at a service of the Kirking of the Tartans at the Old High Church, with the Association of Highland Clans and Societies
Scripture Readings: Exodus 35: 30-35 not Lectionary
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
One of the biggest events in our church calendar at Old High St Stephen’s is a Kirking- the Kirking of the Council, which we have grown in recent years into a very happy community festival. So it’s lovely for us today to be hosting, for the first time, another kind of Kirking, the Kirking of the Tartans. There is no more potent symbol of Scotland than tartan, but, of course, like many of the symbols of Scotland, tartan has its roots in the Highlands and in Gaelic culture.
The weaving of tartan is an ancient art, but the practice of blessing the various tartans is much more recent. As Allan Maclean explains in our Order of Service booklet, the origin of the Blessing or Kirking of the Tartans was a fundraising church service in Washington DC in 1941, led by the Reverend Peter Marshall. Marshall was Minister of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church (which had been Abraham Lincoln’s church in Washington DC). He was one of the best-known clergymen of his era, serving as Chaplain to the United States Senate. His wife Catherine wrote his biography after he died young, and the royalties still pay for a bursary at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey which brings a student each year from the University of Glasgow- for Peter Marshall was born in Coatbridge. As it happens, I was the Peter Marshall Bursar at Princeton in 1991 to 92- funny how these things go round.
Allan Maclean was kind enough to suggest two passages of scripture for today’s service. The first text might seem a rather obscure passage, but Allan chose it because it is one of the places which mentions the making of cloth in the Bible- appropriate, perhaps, on a day when we celebrate tartan cloth.
The text is from the Book of Exodus, and tells of the construction of the Tabernacle, which was a sort of mobile sanctuary which the Israelites took with them during the forty years in the wilderness after their departure from Egypt. The Tabernacle consisted of poles and curtains which could be set up to create a sort of holy enclosure. It was a temple for nomads, a portable church for wandering tent dwellers.
In our passage, Moses is giving instructions to the people about how they are to make the Tabernacle. The text mentions crafts, such as woodworking, jewellery design, embroidery and weaving. For the Tabernacle was kind of tent made of cloth, and there would also be cloth needed for items such as coverings for an altar or religious objects, and special vestments for the priests.
Exodus gives us the name of two craftsmen- Bezalel son of Uri, and Oholiab, son of Ahisamach, No doubt they were remembered for being gifted designers and teachers, as well as being the top managers of the cloth makers. But it occurs to me that, as we are given these men’s names, we are not getting the whole story. For, as the case in many traditional societies, spinning and weaving and working with cloth were traditionally women’s arts in the world of the Bible. I think we can safely say that many, if not most, of those who would have spun and weaved and embroidered the cloth for something like the Tabernacle would have been women.
Tartan is the subject of much scholarly debate. Its origins and meaning are to some extent lost to us, in folk traditions which were often only oral. Yet I think that we may safely state that tartan is really the invention of women- nameless, forgotten women, the women who weaved and dyed the cloth, the women who, in the ages before industrialisation, spun and sewed and knitted and embroidered to ensure that the men went out, to hunt or into battle, appropriately dressed. So let us remember, not just the clan chiefs and the warriors who are so often depicted in our museums in spectacular Highland dress, but the women who spun and weaved and sewed and who truly invented our tartans.
Our Gospel reading tells of how God pours out his Spirit on both men and women. For this is the day that the church around the world celebrates Pentecost, festival which remembers the coming of the Holy Spirit. As we heard in the reading from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, something happened to the first followers of Jesus, something which Luke, the author of Acts, says took place fifty days after the Resurrection of Jesus at Easter. Somehow the apostles of Jesus felt themselves seized by the Spirit of God. It seems that the time has come which was foretold by some of the ancient prophets, such as Joel- a time when God pours out his spirit on young and old, sons and daughters, men and women, young and old.
Luke describes the experience as being like a powerful wind, or tongues of fire- he is struggling for words, because trying to describe the experience of the presence of God, or the power of God, is something which is almost beyond description, beyond mere words. But something was happening- something new. And suddenly, as Luke tells it, the apostles are spilling out onto the street, their new found enthusiasm causing a stir.
Luke tells us that the audience included many devout Jews from around the world- he gives us a long list of place names, some mostly forgotten nowadays (like Phyrgia, now part of modern Turkey) and some still familiar to us- Rome, Crete, Egypt- various provinces or cities of the Roman Empire and beyond. And Luke claims that the Spirit made it possible for the Christians to speak about the good news of Christ, but in the different languages of all these places, so that each one realised they could hear them ‘in our own languages’.
You have to understand this tale in the context of another story which is often read on this Pentecost Sunday. It is the Biblical story from which we get the English word ‘babble’- the story of the Tower of Babel, which is told in Genesis chapter 11. This legendary tale tells of the people of the earth attempting to build a tower into heaven, into the realm of God. God frustrates their attempt to reach the same level as God by suddenly confusing their language. Whereas before all the humans spoke one, common language, now suddenly begin to speak in many different languages. The attempt to build the tower ends in chaos, and the different language groups go off to live in separate parts of the world.
The Babel story is also a story to warn us human beings that we can never, of our own efforts, challenge the sovereignty of the God of Heaven. As the Psalmist reminds us, the Lord is God indeed, who made us without our aid; who are we to challenge God Almighty?
However, the story of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles is the New Testament response to the Old Testament tale of the Tower of Babel. At Pentecost, the Spirit allows the Gospel to be preached in many different languages, and for people from many different nations and cultures to hear, understand and respond. Now, people everywhere are able to hear the good news of the story of Jesus Christ. ‘[E]veryone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’, says Peter to his multinational audience.
It is interesting, however, that the Spirit does not simply reverse Babel. We don’t all go back to speaking the one language. Instead, the barrier of language is overcome. It is as if God is affirming our differences- our different languages, our different cultures, our different nationalities. The Gospel message of peace with God is available to people of any nationality or language. But it is not restricted to any one nation. Nor does God simply call us to give up our national distinctiveness. Instead, God affirms our uniqueness, but weaves it together so that we are all caught up in a Gospel which is multinational, multicultural and multilingual.
Tartans are often associated with different clans, or areas, or names. Increasingly, too, they are associated with other aspects of our common culture. I am told there is a now a clergy tartan and in 2017 a Church of Scotland tartan was launched. To keep track of all these designs, we now have a Scottish Register of Tartans. This year marks its 10th anniversary (appropriately, given that previous acts of another parliament had tried to restrict the wearing of Highland dress, the Scottish Register of Tartans was set up by an Act of the Scottish Parliament). It seems as though the tradition of tartan is set to continue long into the future.
There are still those who feel that tartan is not a good symbol for a modern Scotland. They worry that it is mere romanticism, a harking back to a kind of Walter Scott kind of mythological history. After all, the tartans are often identified with particular clans- could we not have something which better represents the diversity and variety of life in modern Scotland?
But think of what a tartan design is: a weaving together of different colours, different strands, which are brought artfully together create a pattern pleasing to the eye. For those of us who feel that it is our family history which connects us to Scotland, tartan is a reminder of our roots. But the contrasting and intermingled colours of tartan are a reminder to us that Scotland has been enriched by many different kinds of people. That includes those who have come here more recently: they, too, are weaving their unique colours into the great tartan that is today’s Scotland.
So, on this Pentecost Sunday, let us thank God for all our different clans and nations and cultures, and for the Divine Spirit which inspires the best of our cultural traditions, and which binds us, regardless of clan, into a common humanity.
Let me end with a prayer which reminds us that, however proud we might be of our clan, our nation, our particular culture, still the God of Heaven is the God of us all. It is a prayer written by an immigrant, a Scot who became an American, the man who invented the Kirking of the Tartans, Peter Marshall.
Let us pray.
Lord God of Heaven,
who has so lavishly blessed this land,
make us, your people, humble.
Keep us ever aware
that the good things we enjoy have come from you,
and that you simply lend them to us.
Impress upon our smugness
the knowledge that we are not owners, but stewards;
remind us, lest we become filled with conceit,
that one day a reckoning will be required of us.
Sanctify our love of country,
that our boasting may be turned into humility
and our pride into a ministry to men and women everywhere.
Help us to make this God’s own country
by living like God’s own people. Amen.
Biblical references from the New Revised Standard Version, unless otherwise stated
© 2019 Peter W Nimmo
 Psalm 100, Scottish Metrical Version (CH4 63)
 Altered version of prayer by Peter Marshall, quoted in Catherine Marshall, A Man Called Peter, p293, New York 1951