The Rev. Miranda Hassett preached this sermon on June 30, 2019.
Why do we observe the Fourth of July at church? As a Christian and as a church leader, I’m pretty mindful of the line between my patriotism and my faith, my identity as a citizen and as a baptized follower of Jesus. But praying for our nation and our leaders is in our DNA as Christians in the Anglican tradition. So most years we take the Sunday leading up to Independence Day to pray together for our nation, that it may live up to its boldest ideals and bravest promises.
There tends to be a lot of talk about freedom at this time of year. It’s a complicated topic, one which we collectively deploy quite selectively. Consider the recent prosecutions of people who leave water in the desert along our borders for migrants who might otherwise die of thirst. People who might well have thought they were free to exercise mercy.
Our Galatians lesson this morning talks about freedom – Christian freedom. Paul says: Your freedom isn’t to do whatever you want, and it certainly isn’t to hurt others. When Paul is talking about freedom, his point is that the life of faith isn’t about following certain concrete practices and rites, as in Old Testament Judaism. He’s saying that the life of faith is, simply and completely, a life oriented towards loving your neighbor as yourself. And there is a freedom in that, because there are lots of ways to live out love of neighbor. But there’s also commitment in it – an un-freedom of sorts – because if we are in Christ we are NOT free to not care about the wellbeing of others.
Our freedom in Christ, says Paul, is to strive, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to be people of love and joy, peace and patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. So that’s something to carry with you this week as our nation celebrates freedom.
Another thing that you might hear about a lot this week is history. The Fourth of July, Independence Day, is an historical celebration. It is, to be specific, the date in 1776 when the Continental Congress, the governmental body of the original 13 colonies, approved the final wording of the Declaration of Independence, agreeing on all the changes and edits they’d been working on for days.
But history, like freedom, is more complicated than we often think. I’ve been reading up lately on local history. Very local history. As in, the history of the ground under our feet right now.
It’s easy to begin telling the history of this property in 1848. That’s when the Heim brothers, Joseph and Anton, left Bavaria, Germany, following a failed revolution against the oppressive ruling class. Joseph was 30, Anton was 22. Joseph’s wife Theresia traveled with them. Along with many others, they came to the United States and eventually settled in Wisconsin. They bought this land from the U.S. government, and established a farm, building that brick farmhouse in around 1858.
This whole area was the Heim farm – from Old Middleton Road to the south up to the lakeshore, and some ways to the east and west. Heim Avenue, half a mile east, still bears the family name of our founding family.
This is how European Americans usually tell the history of our places. As if it begins when white people show up. But this land had history, and people, before the Heims, before the U.S. government.
The Ho-Chunk people, known in the 19th century as the Winnebago tribe, lived in this area for thousands of years before they were largely removed to reservations in the mid-19th century. Their ancestors, a thousand years ago, built the effigy mounds that still dot our landscape, though many have been destroyed. Effigy mounds are earthen structures that make the shape of an animal or symbol – birds, human figures, bears, and, maybe 1500 feet from where I’m standing, a fox.
Anton’s son Ferdinand grew up in the old farmhouse we call the rectory. He lived from 1865 to 1950 – a lifespan that bridged the 19th and 20th centuries, and saw this area go from woodlands with a few tiny clusters of homes and businesses, to a bustling suburb. In 1937 Ferdinand donated the fox mound to the Wisconsin Archaeological Society, to keep it safe for posterity as he was selling off the land around it for development into the neighborhood along Mound Avenue.
Ferdinand also shared memories of the presence of Winnebago Indians in this area during the early decades of the Heim farm. Apparently the bit of lakeshore right behind those apartments – the Swenson estate, perhaps 2000 feet away – was a very popular camping area. Ferdinand recalled that anywhere from thirty to fifty natives might camp in the area at a time, living in wigwams and hunting, trapping, and fishing for food. He said, “They were great beggars, stopping at the farm houses at all times for food supplies, and his father [Anton Heim] was obliged to erect rough fences about his hay mows in the Middleton Beach marsh to protect them against the foraging Indian ponies.”
Clearly, the native people who had treated this area as part of their territory – a comfortable spot, a beautiful spot, a sacred spot – for centuries or maybe millennia, were trying to continue doing so, even as European settlers moved in and turned the forests into farmland. And just as clearly, the continued presence of the Natives was a significant annoyance to the settlers.
The history of how the Ho-Chunk and other local Native groups lost this land is hard to tell. Partly because it’s complicated and partly because it’s heartbreaking. I’ve been reading about it – the 1804 Treaty of St. Louis; the so-called Black Hawk War and the massacre at Bad Axe; President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830; the decimation of the Ho-Chunk and other Midwestern tribes by contagious diseases brought by European settlers.
It’s not easy history to know. But I’m glad I know it. It makes my heart heavy, but I prefer it to ignorance.
In our prayer of confession, when we hold up the evil done on our behalf, the dispossession and decimation of the native peoples of this continent is among those evils. And when we hold up the evils that enslave us, the fact that we live and work on land taken unjustly, and lack the wisdom or the will to make amends, is among those evils.
I don’t know what amends would look like, in these circumstances. I truly don’t. But I know that the opening words of the Prayer for our Country in the Book of Common Prayer are a lie: “Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage…”
Maybe it was God’s intention, part of the ineffable plan, for the United States of America to come to be. But to claim in our prayers that this land was simply given to us by divine fiat obscures the bloody reality that our ancestors took it, by deception and by violence.
So, this Sunday, and this Independence Day, let us remember that we are gathered on Ho-Chunk land. Let us celebrate the goodness and grace in our history, while courageously facing the unjust and the bitterly sad. And let us turn to the God who blesses our repentance and helps us to will the good, as we pray.
O God, who created all peoples in your image, we thank you for the wonderful diversity of races and cultures in this world. Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of fellowship, and show us your presence in those who differ most from us, until our knowledge of your love is made perfect in our love for all your children; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Lord God Almighty, you have made all the peoples of the earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and in peace: Give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
A little further reading: