There are three land grants hanging in my house, in a little area off the dining room.
They’re not really worth anything. They’re old. But documents like them aren’t that rare. And, to use a strange little phrase, they aren’t historically significant. But they are a doorway into a part of history that some of us don’t know nearly well enough.
In 1804, the United States worked out a treaty with the Sauk and Meskwaki nations. The treaty said that these two nations would sell their land east of the Mississippi to the United States. It was simple and it was traditional: land for money.
There were questions of course. There may have been some trickery. The indigenous negotiators may not have been authorized to cede land. They might have been drunk. And the United States might have included more land in the treaty than those negotiators had agreed to. There were enough questions—and those questions were serious enough—that there would be a war about it later: the Black Hawk War.
Eight years later, in 1812, there was a different war. The United States and France and some indigenous nations were on one side. And Britain and Spain and some other indigenous nations—including the Sauk and the Meskwaki—were on the other.
And an ancestor of mine, Randall Davis, was on the American side.
About twenty years after that… and right after the Black Hawk War… right after some Sauk and Meskwaki demanded their land back… right after the United States pushed those nations out of Illinois… and right after the United States pushed those nations (and some other) out of Eastern Iowa… the Jackson Administration gave some of the land that the government had first gotten in 1804, to veterans of the War of 1812.
And that Administration gave some land to Randall Davis.
That’s how some of my family became farmers in Illinois… right about the same time that some people made some marks on a map of Iowa and said, “That will be Dubuque… and that will be Davenport… and that will be DeWitt.”
Today, we are continuing one of our two intertwined summer sermon series… es. We’re spending some time this summer talking about being a blessing: leading with love, praying often, practicing peace, giving thanks, being joyful, being kind, doing good, having courage, working for justice, being the light, and encouraging others.
We’ve heard about leading with love. We’ve heard about praying often. And now we’re here: be a blessing, practice peace.
And we’re hearing a story about making peace. But in order to understand the peace that’s being made here, you need to know about the war.
Jacob and Esau are brothers. And they’re not just brothers, they’re twins. And they’re not just twins, they’re the sons of Isaac, the son of Abraham, with whom God made a covenant.
Esau is the older twin. He was born just a moment earlier. And that matters.
At the moment of his birth, Esau was destined by traditions to take charge of the family when his father died. At the moment of his birth, Esau was destined by tradition to receive his father’s blessing.
Jacob is the younger twin. He was born just a moment later, clinging to Esau’s heel, ready to pull him back and usurp him. And sometimes the younger kid is smarter. Sometimes the younger kid is trickier. Sometimes the younger kid can tell tradition exactly where it can go.
Over the years, Jacob convinced Esau to give up his birthright. And when Isaac was on his deathbed, Jacob tricked Isaac into giving him the blessing that should have gone to Esau:
May God give you of the dew of heaven, and of the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you!
And the moment Esau learned that Jacob had done that, Esau made a promise. When his father, Isaac, died, Esau would absolutely, positively, without a shadow of a doubt, murder Jacob.
So Jacob left.
Jacob hasn’t been home in years. He hasn’t been home in decades. He’s gotten married and had kids. He has played some tricked and he has been tricked. And now, God has said to Jacob, who stole his brother’s birthright and his brother’s blessing, “Return to the land of your ancestors and to your kindred.”
So that’s where he’s going.
Jacob and his wives and his children and his flocks and his servants are getting close to home. And that means that they’re getting close to Esau. And Jacob knows what he did. He knows that Esau is absolutely, positively, without a shadow of a doubt, going to murder him and his wives and his children and his flocks and he servants.
So he sends presents to Esau. He sends servants ahead of him with goats and sheep and camels and cows and donkeys. He sends group after group of them. It’s a lot. And it’s not enough. But maybe it will be enough. Y’know?
And when they meet—Esau the firstborn and Jacob the usurper—Esau embraces Jacob, and kisses Jacob, and asks about the entourage that he’s brought with him, and tells him that it was all too much, and all but says, “It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you. Welcome home.”
And all that Jacob can say is, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.”
In that moment, Jacob and Esau made peace. And they could make peace because they both know the history between them, and because Jacob could make a gesture of restitution for the things that he had done. They could make peace because Esau could extend grace and because Jacob could accept it.
We are called to practice peace. We are called to make peace. We are called to pursue peace. We are called to keep peace.
And it would be nice if we could do that in a world that had never known anything else. It would be nice if we could do that in a world that had never known conflict, or injustice, or bloodshed, or war. It would be nice if we could do that in Eden.
But we all know the truth.
There are three land grants hanging in my house, in a little area off the dining room. I could burn them to ashes. I could forget the name Randall Davis. I could deny that the Treaty of St. Louis was ever written, or that the War of 1812 ever happened, or that the Black Hawk War ever occurred. I could omit them from the story that I tell about my family and of my nation.
But even if I did that, my presence here would still be a living testament to those events. That’s not guilt. That’s not shame. That’s just a fact.
I can ignore the history that demands peacemaking… but I cannot erase it. I cannot erase it anymore than Jacob could have erased his history with his twin brother Esau.
Because even if I did ignore it, the facts would still be there, and the effects would still be there, and the pain would still be there.
And any attempt to practice peace… to make peace… to pursue peace… to keep peace… to find peace among the conflict and injustice and bloodshed and war of this world… has to begin with acknowledging the facts and the effects and the pain.
It has to begin with people saying, “We know the history between us.”
And then, sometimes—not all the time, but sometimes—it has to continue with someone saying, “Here is a gift. A gesture of restitution. It’s not enough. But maybe it’s enough, y’know?”
And sometimes… not all the time, but sometimes… that gift… that gesture of restitution… starts with something as simple as saying, “I will listen to your story. And I will understand your feelings. And I will acknowledge the facts. And I will try to help.”
And then, with any luck and with a whole lot of God, someone extends some grace… and someone accepts it… and a little more peace shows up.
And I know that’s hard. It means looking at our histories and seeing the bits that we do not want to see. For me, it has meant looking at three land grants hanging in my house, in a little area off the dining room… and asking why my family had them… and how we got this land… and learning that it came from trickery and deceit, conflict and injustice, bloodshed and war.
But now I know more of the story. And I can understanding more of the feelings. And I can acknowledge more of the facts. And I can try to help with a deeper sense of the history.
And I know that’s hard. And I’m about to make it a whole lot harder. Because the work of peace is not a one-and-done sort of thing. We have to practice it every day. We have to listen to the story every day… and understand the feelings every day… and acknowledge the facts every day… and try to help every day.
But I can tell you that when we do that, we find a little more blessedness… and we become a little more of a blessing… and the world gets a little bit better… every day. Thanks be to God.