Ground Zero


Sermon for January 26th, 2020



It’s hard to imagine, but a couple thousand years from now people may read news stories or letters from the distant past and wonder: “what is this place Ground Zero which these people keep referring to?”


When we hear that name though, we know exactly what it is. And I say “what it is,” rather than “where it is,” because when we hear that name we think of more than just a geographical location, for us it is so much more than a dot on a map.


When we hear Ground Zero we don’t just think of the World Trade Center or a city block in lower Manhattan. We hear the name and are instantly reminded of something that happened there. We are reminded of death and destruction and horror. The images come flooding back, even some of the sensations. That horrible smell that filled the air; the missing person signs that papered the city; that sense of fear, of wondering “what’s next?” All of that comes rushing back to me when I hear the name “Ground Zero.”


There are some places in our world that see such horror that just saying their name conjures up painful emotions and images, even if we didn’t witness the horror personally. If I say the name “Auschwitz” or “Treblinka” or “Daccau” you don’t just think of places in Europe…dots on the map. You think of all of the horrors that we know happened there. Death, defeat, captivity, starvation, cruelty. There are other places whose names conjure up similar emotions: Pearl Harbor, Dunkirk, Verdun. Sadly, that list of names grows longer everyday:


Columbine, Newtown, The Pulse Nightclub.


So many place names become synonymous with the horrors witnessed in those places, that to say them out loud is a risky thing because you are evoking powerful, terrible emotions and memories in people. These names mean so much to us and evoke so much within us, that it is hard to imagine a day when someone might hear them and have no concept of what those places represent. But sadly, that day often comes. Our memory of history fades, and the horrors that our history contains fade away with it, until place names, just become place names again. If I went up to the average person on the street and mentioned Andersonville or Culloden or Carthage, how many would have any idea what I was talking about?


When you heard the first reading just a few moments ago, and heard Isaiah talk about the land of Zubulun and the land of Naphtali…did it stir up anything within you? Did you feel a surge of emotion when you heard Matthew repeat Isaiah’s words in the gospel reading?




Well neither did I at first. They are just funny place names in the bible. I don’t have any emotional connection to them at all. So when I hear that Jesus is going to start his ministry in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali my first thought is: ok, whatever, who cares? Just one of those meaningless, tedious details that the Bible is full of right?


But then again, there is always the chance that I am missing something, so I dug a little deeper.


Who were Zebulun and Naphtali?


Well if you think way back to the book of Genesis, or if you try and remember the songs to the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, you may recall that there was Abraham, then Isaac and then Jacob (Jacob and Sons!), there was Jacob who had twelve sons.


Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph and Benjamin.


Naphtali and Zebulun were two of Jacob’s sons and with their brothers they were founders of the twelve tribes of Israel. Well when the Children of Israel (or the descendants of Jacob) returned to the Promised Land after their exile in Egypt, each of these tribes settled in their own little territories, sort of like our counties. The Zebulun and Naphtali tribes settled in the North by the Sea of Galilee. Thus was established the Land of Zebulun and the Land of Naphtali.


Ancient history so why would Matthew care that Jesus started his ministry there?


Because in around 740 BC during the time of the prophet Isaiah, the Assyrian army, living to the North of the Kingdom of Israel invaded. There was war and destruction and death. The tribes that lived there, if they weren’t killed in battle, they were hauled off into captivity and lost. They disappeared. The Babylonian Captivity or Exile of the Jews is still pretty well know and talked about, but that was of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The Assyrian Captivity of the Northern Kingdom has largely been forgotten, because no one came back. The people had just disappeared.


And Ground Zero for the Assyrian Captivity was the Land of Zebulun and the Land of Naphtali. That is where the Assyrian army invaded first. Those were the people whose lives were first destroyed by this terrible event. And those are the people that Isaiah is talking about when he talks about people walking in deep darkness. These were current events for Isaiah. And yet he had the faith and vision to say that those people walking in darkness, who are living under the rod of the oppressor, someday they are gonna see a light. And there will be no gloom for them anymore. This land that has been destroyed, someday it will be made glorious. That is what God is going to do for his people.


That is why Matthew thinks it’s significant that Jesus is starting his ministry there. This is the region and shadow of death. This is where death and destruction first reared its ugly head for the Kingdom of David, so this is the first place that this son of David is going to go to establish his new kingdom. Jesus isn’t going to Galilee because it’s a nice place to go fishing; Jesus is going to Galilee because the Land of Zebulun and the Land of Naphtali had been a hell on earth. The names Zebulun and Naphtali had become infamous symbols of suffering and death. When you said Zebulun and Naphtali, people thought of more than just a place on the map.


That is where God sends his son to teach, heal and proclaim the good news that God’s kingdom is a lot closer to them than they imagined.


It was in this land, a symbol in itself of how broken human kingdoms and human society can be, it was in this land whose name was a reminder of just how cruel and inhumane we humans can be to one another, it was in this land of pain, anguish and darkness, it was in this land that the light of the world walks up to a couple fishermen trying to mend their broken nets and says:


Hey, aren’t you tired of this yet? Aren’t you tired of living in a land of fear and death and darkness? Aren’t you tired of trying to mend a world that won’t seem to stay mended for long?


Wouldn’t you like to follow me and live differently and invite others to live as a part of this new Kingdom that God is building?

Maybe the fact that Jesus goes to the Land of Zebulun and the Land of Naphtali isn’t such an insignificant detail after all, because if I lived in the Land of Zebulun and Naphtali next to those fishermen Peter and Andrew and James and John, and someone made that offer to me, well…I almost might be persuaded to follow him.


Always there


A reflection on my uncle,

Fred Sellers Ridley

September 30, 1958 – December 27, 2019

I can remember as a young child having to figure out what my relationship was to Freddy. I can remember learning that he was my uncle.


Uncle Hal and Uncle Tom both had “Uncle” in their names, so I knew what they were, but what was Fred?


Since he always lived at home with Grandma and Granddaddy, and since I was in their house almost as much as I was in my own, Freddy was just always there, so I think it’s understandable that I was a little confused if he was my uncle, an older brother, a cousin or some other relation.

I just knew that Freddy was Freddy. And Freddy was always there.

He was there whenever we spent the night at Grandma’s house. He was in his chair or in his room watching the “A” Team, or Dukes of Hazzard, or Hunter, or watching the Braves game or a Georgia Bulldogs game.

He was there the next morning too, taking us to Mr. Donut, or going to breakfast with the family at local diners like Fred and Ethel’s, where he knew the waitress.

Actually it didn’t matter what diner we went to, Fred always knew the waitress.

He was there on every family trip to Georgia. Fred adored his Georgia family, and was always ready to make a road trip to Georgia, even on the spur of the moment, and it didn’t bother him one bit to drive up turn around and come right back. Growing up, I remember that Fred had that black Chevy Blazer with the CB radio. And if you had the good fortune to get to ride with him on one of those road trips, you were in for a good time. First of all, he would crank the air way up to see if he could freeze you out, cause Fred always wanted his car nice and cold. And you knew that for Freddy, a handpainted sign on the side of the road that said “boiled peanuts” was just as good as a stop sign. And Fred wasn’t so polite as to not tell the person stirring the pot that their product was no good if they happened to be boiling the wrong type of peanuts.

Freddy was there to take you out into the woods or the backroads to teach you how to drive. He’d even let you drive on one of those Georgia trips, giving you pointers along the way.

He was there when you wanted to go out to the camp to go hunting or fishing.

He was there when you got stuck in the mud or the sugar sand; he probably helped you get stuck, but Freddy always had a friend that could come and get you unstuck. That’s how Freddy was: he was the sort of person that could get you into trouble and out of it at the same time. Fred wouldn’t get into your business, but if you needed help he was there. He might not know what to do or how to help you; he might give you good advice, he might give you bad advice, but he was there.

Freddy was there to take us to Disney or Universal, or the county fair or bowling or wherever just to have fun and cut up. Fred was a constant cut-up. He was always ready to have fun. Fred didn’t have kids of his own so all of us cousins got to be his kids. And we were blessed. We had an uncle that would teach us, love us, and antagonize us all at the same time. If you are a friend of this family looking in, I will let you in on a little secret: we tease and play jokes on each other relentlessly. It runs in our blood and it is one of the ways we show affection. And Fred was often the ringleader or the instigator in one of these jokes. If you are familiar with the cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn, then you have basically met every uncle I have, but especially Freddy, because he showed affection by taking you under his wing and involving you in his mischievous plan to prank Grandma (or whoever, but it was often Grandma).

Us cousins weren’t the only kids Fred had though. Let’s not forget his two amazing, farting bulldogs, both named Annie, and later on his cat Bubba. Fred was a lot like those bulldogs though: happy to play, happy to eat, happy to sit around and do nothing, and happy to torture you with the occasional bodily function. Fred was not someone that was easily embarrassed about such things. Everyone has gas, but not everyone knows how to laugh about it. Fred knew how to laugh about it. Fred was always there with a laugh or a joke.

And Fred was always there in his community. To ride around town in the car with Fred was a lesson in humanity and public relations. First of all, Fred knew everybody. It could be frustrating to go anywhere with him, because he knew everybody and had to stop and talk to everybody. Everybody mattered to Fred. And the things that the world tends to care about, things like money and formal education, didn’t impress Fred at all. He would talk to the richest man in town the same way he would talk to the poor man on the corner. That stuff didn’t matter to Fred. Fred was not ambitious and he didn’t need to impress you. He just wanted to love you. He wanted to love everybody. That’s who he was.

Freddy was not always in church; he was not a regular churchgoer, but I know he had faith, and it was a faith that he lived more than talked about. Fred’s Sunday morning worship was driving around town checking on everyone he loved, doing whatever he could for them; It’s not my idea of Church, but I think it was Fred’s. I think that Fred took the commandment to love seriously, but I also think that for whatever reason, God gave Freddy the grace to be, in his nature, a loving, selfless person.

Maybe it was so that we would know, in our lives, in this world, what simple, basic goodness looks like. And that’s what Fred was: simple, basic goodness.

You know, I know we all need Jesus for salvation and eternal life, and I know that on the last day, only Jesus can be our judge, but I also know that when it comes to day to day living, some of us seem to need him more than others. And I’ll speak for myself here, I need and pray for help everyday with things like forgiveness, or showing love, or thinking the best of people. When it comes to loving my neighbor as myself, I need a lot of help, but for Freddy that seemed to come so naturally. I envy that. He made it look effortless.

Grandma always referred to Fred as her miracle baby, because he almost died when he was a child, but the real miracle in Fred’s life is gathered in this room today. Look around. There are a lot of different people here today. Different backgrounds, different politics, different churches, but Fred was able to love us all. I think there is something miraculous in being able to be that loving. And there is something miraculous in Fred’s ability to be utterly selfless. Until I get to heaven and see Jesus face to face, I doubt that I will ever know in this world a more selfless person than Fred Ridley. I doubt any of you will either.

As a matter of fact, the only thing critical that I can really say of Fred, was that he could take care of everyone but himself. He just couldn’t take care of himself.

I think these last few years, since Grandma died, Fred has been a bit lost without having someone that needed him everyday. We all struggled with losing her, but for Fred it was particularly hard, because he was always there. The rest of us came and went, but Fred was always there.

Coming back this week, the thing that has been the most difficult for me, is that every time I turn around, I keep expecting him to be there. I know why I am here, but every time the door opens, I expect to hear his voice. I expect to look up and see him sitting at the table. I expect to walk into his house and see him sitting in his chair. I keep expecting Fred to be there because Fred was always there. I keep waiting to hear his laugh again. It’s Christmas time, and at Christmas growing up, Fred was always there and his laugh was always in the background. The morning that Freddy died the first thing that hit me like a knife in the heart, was the fleeting thought for a second, that I wouldn’t get to hear him laugh again. I want so much to hear that laugh again. I don’t just want to remember his laughter from Christmases past, I want to hear it again. I want him back.

And then I remembered that the reason any of those Christmases ever happened, the very thing that we were celebrating that brought us all together, was the birth of a child who gives me the hope of hearing Freddy’s laugh again. The joy of Christmas for me this year is knowing that because of the birth of this child named Jesus, I don’t have to talk about Freddy in the past tense. On days like today you realize that that is the best Christmas present you will ever get.

The last few days, my mind keeps going back to the last couple verses of one of my favorite Christmas Hymns, called “Once in Royal David’s City.” The last two lines go like this:

And our eyes at last shall see Him,

Through His own redeeming love;

For that child so dear and gentle,

Is our Lord in heaven above,

And He leads His children on,

To the place where He is gone.


Not in that poor lowly stable,

With the oxen standing by,

We shall see Him, but in heaven,

Set at God’s right hand on high;

When like stars

His children crowned,

All in white shall wait around.


That’s where Freddy is now. And now, Freddy is always there.


Merry Christmas Fred.