Sermon, May 30

Lectionary texts for today are here. 

Today’s Scripture texts are full of the mystery and awe of God. We hear Isaiah’s vision of the divine throne, surrounded by the seraphim with their six mighty wings, the very floor trembling with the might of their voices as they cry out God’s praise, the air hazy with incense smoke. 

Our Psalm echoes that sense of the power and wonder, even terror, of God enthroned in might… The voice of God shakes the wilderness! 

And then we have poor confused Nicodemus, who has every reason to stay away from Jesus, and yet comes to him by night, drawn to him like a moth to a candle… Here’s my favorite image of Nicodemus and Jesus, by Henry Ossawa Tanner.  It’s actually a study, not a finished piece, but I love the quality of twilight and mystery here. It fits the conversation in our Gospel text, in which Jesus tells Nicodemus: if I speak of heavenly things, you simply won’t be able to understand. 

Awe and mystery. Flame and smoke and trembling earth. God is bigger and stranger than we can perceive or understand. 

But we have been given glimpses, fragments and hints. And we know this: that God’s ineffable unity, God’s one-ness, also somehow contains multiplicity. God holds community, relationship, within Godself – Father, Son, and Spirit; Source, Word, and Breath; Wisdom, Love, Might. The Holy and Undivided Trinity. 

And then there’s our passage from Romans: All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God… who cry out “Abba! Father!” by the spirit of adoption that God has given us. It’s a provocative and beautiful contrast with the other texts. Paul sees us called into relationship with the awe-inspiring Mystery at the center of things. He sees that figure on the heavenly throne, shrouded in smoke, and suggests that we climb up on its lap. Because that God, mighty and mysterious, has named us as their children. 

God’s Threeness within Oneness teaches us to understand that relationship is at the very heart of the Holy. And we are invited into relationship with that divine Mystery. God loves us, and calls us into love. What does that look like? 

Elsewhere, in his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul offers this well-known reflection on holy love – “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Or as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry put it in a sermon a couple of decades ago that I’ve never forgotten: God loves you just the way you are, but He isn’t going to leave you that way.

That aspect of love – the part of love that calls us to better and clearer and truer – makes me think of my friends in the recovery community and some of the things I’ve learned from them. In the Twelve Steps, steps 4 through 6 call for making a fearless personal inventory. Admitting your wrongs to God, yourself, and others, and becoming ready for God to help you change. Eventually, if you keep up the work, you arrive at Step 9 – which involves making amends, fixing what you’ve broken and setting things right, as much as may be possible. 

Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 

Your own fearless personal inventory is your work do – though I am glad to be a companion in that work. But I’m speaking here about our vocation as God’s people – together. Our collective examination of where wrongdoing weighs upon us, and where there is truth that needs to be told – and rejoiced in. 

This past Friday was the anniversary of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, signed by President Andrew Jackson, not quite two hundred years ago. It’s one of many dates when the U.S. government took steps against the Native peoples of this continent – but it’s perhaps the most famous such date, leading to the displacement of the Cherokee people and the Trail of Tears. 

There are other dates of local significance to us. September 15, 1832, when a treaty with the Ho-Chunk people, then known as the Winnebago, forced them to cede all their land south of the Wisconsin River, including where we now live and worship. Later, November 1, 1837, another treaty formally removed the Ho-Chunk entirely from Wisconsin – though many refused to leave, and had to be rounded up and driven out in 1840. 

The tribes were paid for the land. But the payments and terms were quite limited. And the tribes were not given a choice about these treaties. They were made an offer they literally could not refuse. 

Ancient Ho-Chunk stories tell of their birth as a people at a place near Green Bay, called Red Banks. As best as anyone can tell, the ancestors of the Ho-Chunk have known and roamed ten million acres of south central and western Wisconsin, for as long as there have been people here at all. Until.

Until population growth in the new European settler nation to the east led to inexorable westward expansion. Until land speculation made the removal of Native peoples profitable.  Until lead ore was found in southwestern Wisconsin, drawing a flood miners into Ho-Chunk territory. 

We know that this area, the region around the lakes, was very special to the Ho-chunk and their ancestors, who called it Teejop. We know that because of documents from the contact period, because of the passed-down memories shared by Ho-Chunk today, and because of the mounds – because over hundreds of years, people marked this sacred landscape by creating images of birds and bears, deer and frogs, out of the earth itself. The closest surviving mound is about half a mile away – a fox.

The ground on which St Dunstan’s stands became the property of the US Government in the 1830s, through treaties and the removal of the Ho-Chunk. It was eventually sold to the Heim brothers, Joseph and Anton,  immigrants from Germany. They settled here in 1848, with Joseph’s fiancé Theresia; built the brick farmhouse we call the Rectory, and cleared and farmed the land. 

Anton’s son Ferdinand lived a very long life – born, probably in the rectory, in 1865, he lived until 1950. As far as I can tell, he lived on the family property his whole life, though in the 1930s he started selling parcels off for development. 

In a 1915 interview, Ferdinand recalled his father Anton’s stories about how, long after their official removal, the Ho-Chunk were still coming around. They would camp on the shore of Lake Mendota, probably right around where Marshall Park is now. There they would hunt, trap, and fish, as they had for generations. 

Ferdinand added that they were great beggars, stopping at the farms to ask for food constantly, and that his father had had to put fences around his hay mows to keep their ponies from eating his hay.

For the Heim family, the persistence of the Ho-Chunk in returning seasonally to this beloved place was an annoyance. Governor Dodge – who governed the Wisconsin Territory for much of the 1840s, after being involved with the massacre of the Sauk tribe at Bad Axe – saw it in the same light. In a speech in 1840 he observed that “the presence of these Indians had given the pioneer settlers great annoyance, and their peaceable removal west of the Mississippi River was a subject of congratulations among the settlers.” 

But even some contemporaries saw the displacement with different eyes. John de la Ronde was a French-Canadian trader who knew the Ho-Chunk well. He served as an interpreter for a group of United States soldiers who were breaking up and clearing out Ho-Chunk settlements in 1840. His account is heartbreaking. 

In one case, he describes a group of Natives who asked to “bid goodbye to their fathers, mothers, and children,” before being forced to leave their camp. When de la Ronde and his companions followed them, they found them on their knees, kissing the ground where their loved ones were buried, and weeping. The captain of the party exclaimed, “Good God! What harm could these poor Indians do among the rocks?” 

It is interesting and complicated to think about all this on the weekend of Memorial Day – a day when we’re invited to remember and honor those who have died in battle. In northern Indiana where I grew up, a frequent field trip destination was Battleground, the site of the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 – where William Henry Harrison and his troops defeated the Shawnee leader Tecumseh and the alliance of tribes fighting with him to push back white settlers’ incursions. (Harrison later leveraged that victory into a successful presidential bid, then promptly died of pneumonia.) 

There’s a great big marble monument at Battleground to the white soldiers who died in that conflict. But I don’t think there’s any monument to the Native fighters who died there for their people and their land. 

Who counts as American? Who do we consider our war dead? And does honoring them mean that we endorse their causes or celebrate their victories? … 

Removal did not really work, on the HoChunk. They kept coming back. (Much to Anton Heim’s annoyance.) 

When it became possible for them to buy land, they bought land. Though it’s a tiny percentage of the area their ancestors once knew and loved and lived on. 

The Ho-Chunk are still here. Striving to pass on their language and culture to their children; striving to protect their young and their vulnerable from the impacts of systemic racism and poverty. 

The land that I/we are sitting on right now was beloved to a people from whom it was taken,160 years ago. 110 years later, it was given to a little group of Episcopalians who wanted to start a new church on the west side of Madison. 

Can we love these grounds – as we do – without taking in and taking on the history of how they came to be ours? Can we love the sacred earth of this place without asking what love requires of us, with respect to the people who first knew it as sacred? 

Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 

Telling and receiving this story – these difficult truths – is the very beginning of that fearless inventory I mentioned earlier. It is heavy work, which is why it needs to be shared work. (If you feel called to share it, let me know.) 

But I think it’s essential work… that it is the work of love. We respond to the holy interconnectedness and mutuality within the heart of God by striving to name and restore what has been rent asunder and lost. The God of mystery and awe calls us from comfort, to learn, and change, and mend. The God who loves us like a parent will be with us every step of the way, to encourage and guide us.

Knowing this history – and seeking the Spirit’s guidance as we wonder what it might look like to make amends – this is part of our faithful response to the three-fold Mystery that knows each of us by name, that knows every tree and wildflower of this place, and that calls us, always, deeper into love. 

A concise history of Ho-Chunk displacement:

A little about the Ho-Chunk:

De la Ronde’s account is one of the primary sources linked here: