1 John 3:16-24
“One Flock, One Shepherd”
We are glad to welcome the Sons (& daughters) of Scotland to our worship today to participate in a special Kirkin’ of the Tartans, and to share food, and fellowship, and Scottish country dancing after the service. I have never led a Kirkin’ before, but I remember my home congregation in Ottawa hosting this service when I was a teenager.
St. Giles Presbyterian Church (where I grew up) was a very Scottish congregation. Actually, by the time I was there, it was becoming more culturally diverse, but in the 1950’s and 1960’s, my understanding is that the church was an important place for Scottish folk to gather. Almost everyone was Scottish, and going to the Presbyterian Church was a great way to connect.
In the 1980’s and 90’s there was still a remnant of the Scottish crowd, and I remember lots of Scottish accents among the older members of our church. And I was Scottish too (kinda)… a bit Scottish, a bit Irish, a bit Welsh, and a bit English. But I had a Scottish name, at least.
When we did the Kirkin’ of the Tartans, I remember my parents being a bit critical of it. “We’re not a Scottish club!” they complained. “We’re a church! And many of us aren’t Scottish anymore. We have people from many different countries, cultures, and backgrounds.”
But even if the Kirkin’ of the Tartans is clearly a Scottish tradition, I think it’s based in the idea that each family, clan, background, and culture should be treasured, honoured, and included. The practice of the “Kirkin’ of the Tartans” arose in response to a time when tartans were banned, along with the suppression of the cultural identity that they represented. Can you imagine? Scots put themselves at risk if they displayed their families’ tartans in public!
As far as I know, wearing or displaying Scottish tartans is not an issue anywhere anymore, but it makes me think about other forms of cultural attire that still lead to conflict or discrimination in many places.
Earlier this week, I heard a news report about a decision of the Ottawa bus service, OC Transpo. The bus drivers were encountering a problem because although they primarily serve the City of Ottawa, some of the bus routes also cross the interprovincial bridges into Gatineau Quebec. And over in Quebec, they have laws that disallow women wearing Niqabs from receiving any public services. Niqabs are the kind of Muslim veils that cover the whole face except the eyes, and if women are dressed like this in Quebec, they are not allowed to take the city buses.
Well, that’s the current law in Quebec, and it’s being appealed. But in the meantime, what do the Ottawa bus drivers do when their routes take them across the provincial border? OC Transpo decided that as a matter of justice and in line with their commitment to honour diversity, they would not abide by Quebec’s ban on Niqabs.
“Well done, OC Transpo!” I would say. And the Scottish part of me, that knows about a time in history when my ancestors experienced similar discrimination, is not content to accept it when it is directed at another cultural group within our multicultural society.
Of course, it is possible that sometimes we put too much significance on our cultural identities in opposition to others. When we bless the tartans today, we will give thanks for all our families and clans and our cultural heritages. But those tartans were sometimes used to keep groups separate and maintain conflicts and divisions.
When Nick and I visited Scotland back in 2010, I kept looking for something in a “Currie” tartan that I could take home as a souvenir. Well, I could find the Currie tartan in all the tartan book catalogues, but I never found anything in a store with that particular pattern. But what I did find and bring home was a scarf in the Clergy tartan.
I learned that Clergy tartans were developed to assist ministers in providing pastoral care and leadership in church communities that served more than one clan. For example, if I was a Cameron, and my congregation included some Camerons and some MacDonalds, I needed a way to stay neutral between families that were often at odds with each other. I would avoid wearing my family’s tartan, declining to align myself with one family over another, and wear the Clergy tartan instead.
As a Scottish minister, I might set aside my particular family connection in order to declare my allegiance to the wider community that embraces and includes all the particular families together. And as a Canadian minister, I might set aside my particular Scottish and generally British ancestry, in order to align myself with the beautiful diversity of countries and cultures represented in my congregation today.
But we can also rightly give thanks for our families and traditions (our Scottish ancestry, as well as other British, and Irish, and European, and African, and Middle Eastern, and Asian, and South American… and we ask God to bless us as we offer our gifts and experiences to the whole church.
Today is this fourth Sunday in the Season of Easter, the Sunday that is sometimes referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” As you may have noticed, there was a lot about sheep and shepherds in our Scripture readings today. And it seems appropriate that we do the Kirkin’ of the Tartans today because Scotland has lots of sheep.
When Nick and I visited Scotland, we saw sheep all over the place! When we were on the Isle of Iona, the sheep didn’t even run away when you walked right up to them. I took lots of pictures of sheep wandering the hillsides, and we even had to stop the car on the roadside a few times because there were sheep wandering slowly, probably aimlessly across.
The pervasive metaphor in Scripture is about God as our shepherd, while we are the sheep:
- We are prone to wandering, and need God’s help to find food, water, and safety.
- The Lord is our shepherd who leads, guides, protects, and guards us with his life.
- The shepherd really cares for the sheep (more than just a hired hand would) and the sheep get to know and trust the voice of the shepherd.
- The shepherd is willing to do whatever it takes for the lives of those sheep, and in Jesus’ death and resurrection, he did.
This week, as I reflected on the familiar metaphor about the Good Shepherd and the sheep, and as I thought about the Kirkin’ of the Tartans, what stood out to me was the part about the “other sheep.” The shepherd says he has “other sheep” that do not belon to this fold. But he says, “I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
So, who are those “other sheep”? Well, I expect that the author of John’s Gospel was thinking about the Gentiles. His audience was a Jewish Christian community, and one of the challenges of the time was how the Christian community was growing and changing, how Gentiles were coming to faith in Christ also, and how they were being included in the one Christian Church.
In John’s Gospel, and elsewhere in the New Testament, it is made clear that Jesus did not only come to gather and care for his own people – the Hebrew People of Palestine and area. But he actually came for ALL people, Jews and Gentiles and all the people of the world.
This is the trajectory of the Gospels and the other New Testament books. There is a beautiful expansion of the gospel from a small group of Jewish men to an ever-expanding circle, growing wider and wider to embrace all God’s people with the love and grace of Jesus Christ.
The struggle in the early years of the church was around whether these new Gentile Christians would need to become LIKE the first Jewish Christians in order to be saved. Do their men need to be circumcised? Do they need to follow our food laws, our Sabbath practices, and other traditions?
And the Apostle Paul answered, “No.” Gentiles could come as they were, and meet God in Jesus Christ, who had come into the world, and lived, and died to draw them – to draw all people to God. Each and every family and background would be welcomed and accepted, and the dividing walls between us would be broken down through our unity in relationship to Christ who is the Good Shepherd of us all.
We are blessed today in many Presbyterian congregations with a diversity of culture, background, and experience. And for the most part, we do honour and celebrate that diversity. We can wear our tartans, or our sarees, or the traditional clothing of any of our countries or cultures. And we are all welcome, just as we are.
But we need to keep paying attention to where we may have blinders or underlying prejudices that keep us from offering hospitality to all people. Perhaps we sometimes create a space in which formal dress becomes the expectation in our churches, and those without the means to buy fancy clothes are subtly made to feel unwelcome.
Perhaps we sometimes create a space in which the cultural practices of earlier generations are the norm, and younger people without such practices are out of their element.
Perhaps there are some “church culture” practices that we expect everyone to know when they join us for worship, but if you didn’t grow up going to church these things are a mystery… like when to stand or sit, or where to look during a prayer, or whatever other subtleties I can’t even think of because I am so steeped in church culture.
Our reading from 1 John today encourages us to love one another, not only in word or speech (as preachers are so good at doing) but in truth and action. The author of this pastoral letter summarizes the message of God like this: “This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.”
As we do the Kirkin’ of the Tartans, we pray for God’s blessing on us all, giving thanks for our families and clans, and cultural and religious roots. We give thanks for our Presbyterian Church’s Scottish origin, and for the diversity of our church today. And we pray that God will bless us so that we can be a blessing to others – so that we can love one another, just as he has commanded us.