Our Family Tree – Remembering Our Roots: The Great Cloud
Sermon: Our Family Tree – Remembering Our Roots: The Great Cloud Text: Psalm 16:5-8; Psalm 145:8-12 (RSV); Hebrews 10:32-39; 11:32-39; 12:1-3
Today, which is All Saints’ Day, could be a downer as we read the list of people who have died during the past year and think about our own grief experiences. Certainly if you know those deceased as I do, you have experienced grief. All Saints’ Day is actually a day that we are to be encouraged. It is a Sunday set aside for encouraging those of us who are still walking this journey, still traveling this path of life.
We have been considering, now for a number of Sundays, the series Our Family Tree – Remembering Our Roots. My grandfather gave a stern warning to me, his brother and my Uncle Hugh, and others who would venture into the field of genealogical research. He advised, “Don’t go there! You will find horse thieves or women of ill repute.” I must add that he used another word for “women of ill repute.”
In 1985 or so Uncle Hugh, who was then in his eighties, asked me to drive him to Tennessee. He wanted to see his cousins one more time. I agreed. He bought a brand new automobile for the trip, the first he ever owned that came with seatbelts. Immediately using a pair of cotton mill shears to cut out the seatbelts, he argued, “I am not going to be strapped into this thing!”
As we were going down the Cookville Grade, headed toward Nashville, I asked, “Uncle Hugh, what time are your cousins expecting us?”
He answered, “Oh, they don’t know we’re coming.”
“You mean to tell me that you didn’t tell them?”
He explained, “Oh, no, that would be impolite. You don’t tell people you’re coming. You just show up.”
I was not sure how this trip would work out, but we continued on to Murfreesboro, which was his neck of the woods. We stopped along the way for him to make a phone call, and four cousins – all octogenarians – were together within ten minutes. They had the best time talking with each other. I recorded six hours of their conversations. The tapes of these grandchildren of my great-great grandfather are a collection of treasured memories for me.
Uncle Hugh wanted to find out all he could about his family while in Tennessee, so we took one day to go through the archives at the State House in Nashville. I found a claim against the federal government brought by my great-great-grandfather. Union forces, coming down the Shelbyville Pike, had confiscated items from his home. The inventory consisted of his wood stove, a mule, a cow, and a bushel of corn. The government initially did not want to grant the claim but decided to award it because my great-great-grandfather’s brother, John J. Neely, had crossed enemy lines and become a spy for the Union army.
I will never forget Uncle Hugh’s reaction when he read the document. He put his head in his hands and moaned, “Ed told me not to look into our genealogy! He told me I would find horse thieves or women of ill-repute, but it’s worse than that!”
Looking back into our family history as people of faith could be discouraging to us. Some pretty strange people in our history appear in the Bible. Think about Abraham and Sarah, extolled by the Apostle Paul as examples of faith. We have certainly been paying for their wavering faith since they took matters into their own hands when Abraham and the slave girl Hagar had a child. Do not forget that conniving scoundrel Jacob who tricked his blind father, Isaac, and stole a blessing and a birthright from his brother, Esau. Jacob carried on an intrigue lasting twenty years with his Uncle Laban, who was cut from the same cloth. Do we want to claim that family tree? Claiming that heritage is exactly what we do when we come to the Bible.
We have no better place to look than the book of Hebrews 10, beginning at Verse 32:
32 Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. 33 Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. 34 You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. 35 So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.
36 You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.
39 But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.
The writer of Hebrews sets us up to understand that those who have gone before us have paved a way, though not because of their goodness or the fact that they were perfect. They have paved the way because they were people of faith.
Hebrews 11 is often called The Hall of Faith because hero after hero is listed. When we get to Verse 32, we see some individuals who were almost omitted.
I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.
39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
The Bible provides this long family tree, but people of our own flesh and blood have also set the example.
William Neely, from Fishing Creek in Chester County, South Carolina, fought with the Patriot militia during the Revolutionary War. He attained the rank of sergeant. Following the war, he was granted 600 acres of land in western North Carolina, which at the time went all the way to the Mississippi River. He claimed his land near a salt lick located at a bend on the Cumberland River, near what is now known as Nashville. He moved to the frontier with his wife, fourteen children, and all of their early possessions: a pig, a cow, a brass pot and four books – John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, William Law’s Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, Isaac Watt’s hymns, and the King James Version of the Bible. Soon after they built a cabin, Chickamauga Indians led by Chief Draggin’ Canoe killed and scalped William Neely. His daughter Sarah was taken captive in Kentucky. William Neely, among my flesh and blood heritage, is a part of my own family of faith.
Zachary Taylor Hudson fought with Robert E. Lee in the Wilderness campaign. Wounded in the leg and sick with tuberculosis, he was dismissed from the Confederate army after Appomattox. He rode the train to Spartanburg and walked from Magnolia Station 125 miles to Barnwell County where he returned to the family farm. He married Belle Haynesworth, a widow with six children. Together they raised the children by scraping and scrapping. My mother was her adopted child.
My great-grandfather, a brakeman on the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway, was given to overly imbibing Tennessee sipping whiskey. He fell off a train and died, leaving fourteen-year-old Edward Kreswell Neely, the oldest of four children, to support the family. Young Edward dropped out of school in the eighth grade. He worked hard and went into the navy for four years. At age nineteen he traveled to Cuba where he learned to appreciate Cuban cigars. During that time he became skilled as an electrician and took advanced courses in a foreign language that only the navy can teach. When I tried to learn that foreign language, my mother washed my mouth out with soap. She just about got it all, but not quite.
When Edward was sent to Estill, South Carolina, to wire a sawmill, he met a young woman at a cakewalk who became my grandmother. Mammy and Pappy, I called them. They survived the Depression with eight children and another born during the Depression. They later prayed four sons and a son-in-law through World War II.
These people are a part of my heritage, but you also have those in your heritage who give strength to your family tree.
The picture painted in Hebrews is intended to encourage us in our faith. The words of Chapter 12, Verse 3 – “…so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” – encourage a church suffering from faith fatigue. We sometimes think faith means that we adhere to the beliefs or tenets of a certain group or church. We may identify faith with a doctrine or creed that will allow us to get to heaven, as if we were punching a ticket. According to Hebrews, however, faith is a relationship with Christ that does not just focus on the “sweet by and by.” It focuses instead on the here and now.
How can life be better day by day? How can we know that abundant life now? This kind of dynamic faith is not based on doing some action to get to heaven; neither is it based on belonging to a faith that adheres to certain intellectual truths. This faith allows us to experience a little bit of heaven now. This faith has come alive and has made us alive in Christ Jesus. This faith is unafraid. It has no room for resentment, cynicism, or negativity. In the words of Desiderata, this faith believes that even with all of its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, this world can still be beautiful. We walk, not by sight, but by this faith that gives us new eyes. We are able to see things differently even in our most painful sufferings by looking through and with the eyes of God. This kind of faith leads us down the path of love. Without it we sink into despair.
How can this knowledge encourage us? The imagery used in Hebrews 12 is of an athletic game, a race. Hebrews 12:1 says, “Therefore…let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” We are to eliminate every weight that hinders us.
In his book A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson chronicles his hike on the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin, Maine, a total of 2,200 miles. In the first chapter he describes the entry trail, which leads from the campground to the beginning of the Appalachian Trail. Bryson says that this trail, a length of fourteen miles, was littered with all kinds of debris, which hikers had removed from their backpacks and discarded. Why? They were trying to eliminate weight they were toting because it hindered their journey. The motto of experienced backpackers is, “Go light. Simplify.”
Like hikers, we, too, must simplify our lives. The stuff of life, the things of life, can encumber us. I have seen brothers and sisters fight over sticks of furniture after the death of their parents. These weights, which are often our sins, drag us down; we can put aside our sins through confession.
Hebrews 12:1 continues, “…let us run the race set before us with perseverance the race marked out for us.” We are to be runners in a race. I ran track and cross-country in high school and in college. I never won a race, not one, but I ran as a member of a team.
Kenya produces outstanding distance runners who compete in marathon after marathon. All of these runners come from one tribe. Just this year a Kenyan won the twenty-six mile Berlin Marathon in two hours, three minutes, and twenty-three seconds. He averaged four minutes and forty-two seconds per mile. Running at this speed for this distance is a remarkable feat. What is even more remarkable about this particular marathon is that fellow Kenyans won the second, third, fourth, and fifth places as well.
David Epstein, senior editor at Sports Illustrated, has examined why the Kenyans run so well. He has found that a biological difference exists in the Kenyans. He claims that measuring and comparing their ankles and calves with others at the starting line can predict the winner. Their physiological structure – thin ankles and calves – helps them be better runners.
Epstein found that Kenyan runners also have a mental toughness that is unlike that of competitors from other countries. Kenyan children actually go through a rite of passage in order to be considered adults. Children are trained to experience painful exercises, such as crawling through stinging nettles, without crying or flinching. If they can tolerate this pain with a stoic attitude, they are pronounced adults. Kenyans teach their children to embrace pain as a path to success. In contrast, the western world teaches children to avoid pain.
What is our motivation to persevere in this race? Is it so that we can endure the pain? No. Hebrews 12:2 says, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” The cross of Christ motivates us. Golgotha offered no pain avoidance, no painkillers to Jesus. Someone, however, did offer Jesus a sponge soaked in vinegar on a stick of hyssop.
In this Scripture we see a picture of heaven that is different from the one John offers in Revelation. John envisions a heaven of golden streets and pearly gates. The author of Hebrews – who some say is Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement – persuades us to persevere, to keep on keeping on, to continue our quest to reach heaven, defined as relationships. We are to run the race, allowing Jesus to be the pacesetter, the example, the one who goes before us.
Hebrews 12:1 uses imagery of a cloud of witnesses, surrounding us. That cloud includes those mentioned in Hebrews 11: Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, Rebekah, Moses, Rahab, Ruth, and David. It also includes those of our own flesh and blood who encourage us.
My friend Todd Jones used to describe heaven in terms of walking up the eighteenth fairway at the Augusta National Golf Club on the final day of the Master’s. Azaleas and dogwoods are blooming, birds are singing, and the sun is shining brightly in the blue sky. As we walk toward the eighteenth green, the gallery full of fans cheers because we are at the top of the leader board. The people whose names were read this morning – your parents, my parents, grandparents, those who have gone on before us – are part of that great cloud. They are cheering for us, encouraging us to run with perseverance the race that is set before us.
We have heard the beautiful story about Derrick Redmond, a champion in the 400-meter race. During the Barcelona Olympics he injured his hamstring and fell to the track. His father came out of the stands, helped him get up, and said, “We are not quitting.” He later told a reporter, “We did not come to Barcelona to quit halfway. We came to Barcelona to finish the race.”
Who encourages you? Jesus goes before you, showing you the path. Look to him. Look to the cross. Look to all of these witnesses who have preceded us. They will direct you. Your Father in heaven will never let you fail, even when you stumble, which you will. God will pick you up and help you finish the race.
Do you believe in a God like that? This is the gospel truth. If you put your faith in Christ Jesus, this can be your experience while running this race of life. We invite you to respond to the invitations of God.Kirk H. Neely © November 2013