John 11 Selected Verses
(A Sermon Preached for the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan)
A number of years ago, my family had a couple of French exchange students stay with us while they attended the fall term at the local high school. One afternoon, I looked out the window and there was a group of teens across the street jumping into a pile of maple leaves that had been raked up. They were having the time of their lives as they threw fistfuls of leaves at one another. When they came inside, one of the French students said to me, “I now know why the maple leaf is the symbol of Canada…there are so many of them.”
The communion table this morning has swatches of the maple leaf tartan on it. This is not only the official tartan of Canada, but an official symbol of our nation right up there with the flag, the coat of arms and the beaver. Its colours depict the shifting colours of the autumn leaves. In many ways it is a fine symbol to represent the courage of those who left their homes across the seas to come to new shores and take a dive into maple leaves. As a national symbol, it also celebrates that Canada is a melting pot of different cultures.
I remember asking my parents what it was like when they booked passage to come to Canada and both of them said that it was one of the most exciting moments of their lives, wondering what life would be like in the new country, with seemingly endless possibilities spread out before them. They imagined that land with a population density of three people per square mile and how astounded they were to arrive by train at Union Station in Toronto from Quebec City and see crowds of people rushing for street cars. For many of us, it is hard to imagine leaving the comfort and security of home to venture forth to a new country and a new life.
Kirkin’ o’ the tartan literally means, “blessing of the tartan.” While today, many see it as a celebration of Scottish heritage, in the church, we actually see it as a testimony to the struggles of oppressed peoples everywhere. In 1746, in the wake of the battle of Culloden, in an effort to suppress the Scottish clans, the British parliament passed an act which stated, “…no man or boy within that part of Great Britain called SCOTLAND …shall, on any pretext whatever, wear or put on the clothes commonly called Highland clothes (that is to say) the PLAID, PHILABEG or Little Kilt, TROWSE, SHOUDER BELTS, or any part whatever of what peculiarly belongs to the HIGHLAND GARB.” For the next 36 years, anyone found wearing clan tartan was subject to arrest, imprisonment, or banishment to the colonies.
At the same time, countless Scots were forced into the British army to fight in several wars on the European mainland and in the Americas. Tradition holds that during this time the women of the highland clans whose men were far from home would bring a small piece of their tartan to the Kirk (church) with them to be blessed secretly and to pray for heaven’s protection for the clan and for its members.
Today, we honour those Scots who struggled in the face of oppression, however our honouring shouldn’t be just an act of remembering something in the past; it should also be recognition and a call to action in the present. These ancestors fought for freedom, liberation, equality and justice, ideals which their descendents brought to the new land. We are reminded of this in the 1837 Rebellion when Scots farmers in York County, north of Toronto, rebelled against the Family Compact which unfairly applied laws in Canada. Thirty years later the British North America Act was drafted, leading to the joining together of the colonies to form the Dominion of Canada. Of Canada’s 36 “Fathers of Confederation”, more than half were of Scottish origin.
As we celebrate, we recognize that there are many peoples today who struggle as did those in the wake of Culloden. Each day as we hear the news, we are reminded that there is still much inequality in our own land. There are people who slept on the streets of our city last night. There are children who go to school hungry. There is great disparity between the living standards of aboriginal peoples and the majority of society. There is sexual discrimination; there is homophobia. All of these, issues on our doorstep. The picture of inequality exponentially grows when we begin to think about the developing world or perhaps more aptly called, the two-thirds world, with issues of agricultural sustainability, clean water, religious freedom.
This morning’s scripture reading of the raising of Lazarus is perhaps one of the most human stories of the Bible. Jesus arrives at the town where his good friends, Mary and Martha, live. Their brother has just recently died and all the funeral arrangements have been made. Jesus is deeply touched, profoundly moved by their grief. He weeps. The sisters have a tremendous amount of faith in him. “Jesus, we know that if only you had been here, you could have healed our brother.” However, Lazarus has been dead four days and they know that the body has begun to decay in the tomb where he has been laid to rest. Jesus goes to the tomb. Most of the village people thought he was going there to pay his respects. No. Jesus gets to the tomb and says, “Lazarus, come out.” Lazarus, still bound by the funeral wrappings, stumbles out.
There are many tombs in this world in which we seal ourselves off from the reality of the world. There are our personal tombs which enable us to ignore situations in our lives which need addressing. Anyone who has faced an addiction will tell you that the first step to recovery is recognizing that you have a problem. We ignore problems in our relationships, in our families, in our workplaces, and they just seem to decay into worse situations.
There are also societal tombs. There are very real needs in our community which we quite often seal ourselves off from. How tempting it is to cross the street from the teenager who has spent the night in a downtown doorway wrapped in a sleeping back. Look around you. Who are the people hurting? Sometimes they are even sitting in the next pew.
Then there’s Jesus who is standing outside of the tomb. He’s told them to roll away the stone and now he’s calling to us, “Come out.” Do we have the courage to lay aside the grave clothes of our comfort and leave the tomb behind? Do we have the courage to walk out into the daylight of justice, equality and fairness for everyone?
When I see the maple leaf tartan this morning on the altar, I see an invitation to dive into the pile of leaves of all of the challenges and problems of life that surround us. I see an invitation to a new land and I also see an invitation to be more fully alive. Jesus said to Lazarus, “Come out.”