Sermon: “Jesus Will Never Leave You or Forsake You” (August 28, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Jesus Will Never Leave You or Forsake You” (Hebrews 13:5)
August 28, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Be forewarned…this is a heavy sermon, and it may apply to some of you more than others, though I hope it connects with all of you on some level—but it is a gospel sermon, so there is good news too, because the gospel is always good news.

You are ten years old.  It is a crisp spring Saturday afternoon in 1979.  You are riding in the back end of an olive green 1970’s station wagon complete with wood siding.  You are on your way to your soccer game and wearing a Kelly green jersey and socks, shin guards, black Adidas cleats.  Riding with you is your friend and teammate named Paul.  Paul is a goofball, hilarious, happy-go-lucky.  You love hanging out with Paul.  At first you cut up with him and at traffic lights you make funny faces together out the back window at the passengers in the car behind you.

Then a song comes on the radio and Paul suddenly becomes very quiet and somber.  He is suddenly not in the mood to joke around.  The two of you quietly listen to the song called “Just When I Needed You Most,” a melancholy hit by Randy Van Warmer that he wrote after his girlfriend walked out:

You packed in the morning
I stared out the window
And I struggled for something to say
You left in the rain without closing the door
I didn’t stand in your way
But I miss you more than I missed you before
And now where I’ll find comfort God knows
‘Cause you left me just when I needed you most

Now most every morning I stare out the window
And I think about where you might be
I’ve written you letters that I’d like to send
If you would just send one to me…
Now I love you more than I loved you before
And now where I’ll find comfort God knows
‘Cause you left me just when I needed you most

The song ends and the commercials begin, and your usually happy-go-lucky friend looks up at you with watery eyes and softly says, “That’s what my mom did.”

Today I am preaching about abandonment.

Abandonment is something that everyone has experienced in one form or another.  Some have been abandoned by a father or mother, if not physically, perhaps emotionally.  Some have been abandoned by a spouse or a girlfriend or boyfriend, and that can trigger the sentiment Taylor Swift expressed in her ridiculously catchy hit, “We are never ever, ever getting back together.”  Some parents feel abandoned by their children, children with truckloads of resentment toward them.

Some people feel abandoned by the death of a loved one—even if that death was completely unexpected.  People feel abandoned by their employer when “downsizing” and “restructuring” means they no longer have a job.

A couple illustrations…in the powerful 1997 film Good Will Hunting Matt Damon plays Will Hunting, a brilliant but troubled young man who had been orphaned and abused.  He is seething with anger, unable to commit to any romantic relationship.  Robin Williams, in an Oscar winning performance, plays Sean Maguire, the counselor for Will’s court-appointed sessions.  Late in the film Will, having just broken up with his girlfriend Skylar who has moved to California for medical school, enters Sean’s office.  Sean picks up a folder.  “What is that?” Will asks.  “It’s your file,” Sean replies, “I need to send it back to the judge for evaluation.”  “Oh,” Will grins, “you’re not going to fail me are you?  What’s it say?”  Sean’s face is full of compassion.  He offers Will the file, “Want to read it?”

After they talk about the abuse both of them had suffered as children, Will asks Sean, “So, what is it, like, Will has an attachment disorder, is it all that stuff?  Fear of abandonment?  Is that why I broke up with Skylar?”  “I didn’t know you had,” Sean answers.  “Yeah, well, I did.”  “You want to talk about it?”  Will shakes his head, “No.”

And then in the climactic scene of the film, Sean gently steps closer holding up the file.  “Hey, Will?  I don’t know a lot, but you see this, all this?”  He places the file down, “It’s not your fault.”  “Yeah, I know that,” Will whispers as he stares at the ground.  “Look at me, son,” Sean presses, “It’s not your fault.”  He repeats that over and over, “It’s not your fault, it’s not your fault…” until Will finally releases his deep pain from being abandoned and collapses weeping on Sean’s shoulder.

Another illustration…last year I watched the gritty 2012 documentary about one of rock ‘n roll’s greatest drummers, Ginger Baker, a member of two legendary bands of the sixties, Cream and Blind Faith.  (Incidentally, earlier this year Rolling Stone ranked Ginger Baker the number three greatest drummer of all time—a little free trivia for you).  This documentary traces not only his remarkable drumming career, but also his turbulent personal life, marked by ceaseless restlessness, replete with wrecked marriages and relationships tossed aside like flotsam and jetsam.  His third wife, named Karen, observes what may well be at the root of this behavior:

I don’t know if it’s his ability to move on or his inability to stay…I think he has trouble staying and so moving on is his only option…maybe it goes back to when his dad died—he was just kind of taken away abruptly and there was nothing he could do about it.

Then the documentary flashes to Ginger Baker, who recalls a moment when he was a very young boy and saw his father as he returned to fight in World War II:

The only time I remember my dad clearly is on the train when he went off after his last leave—and as the train pulled off I broke away from my mom and went running down the platform after the train, crying…it was like I knew he wasn’t coming back.

There are many Paul’s, Taylor’s, Will’s and Ginger’s out there.  There might even be some here this morning.  The reality is that almost everyone has experienced abandonment in one way or another.  On the recording of a 1966 concert in Royal Albert Hall in London you can hear a pin drop as Bob Dylan delivers the devastating opening lines from his song “Visions of Johanna”—“Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet?  We sit here stranded though we’re all doing our best to deny it.”

Struggles with abandonment may manifest themselves in a variety of ways including feelings of insecurity, depression, decreased self-esteem, a sense of loss of control over life, isolation, withdrawal, an inability to concentrate, intrusive thoughts about the abandonment, and even self-hatred.  On the website for Psychology Today therapist Claudia Black describes the ongoing impact experiences of abandonment in childhood can have in adults:

Abandonment experiences…are in no way indictments of a child’s innate goodness and value.  Instead, they reveal the flawed thinking, false beliefs, and impaired behaviors of those who hurt them.  Still, the wounds are struck deep in their young hearts and minds, and the very real pain can still be felt today.  The causes of emotional injury need to be understood and accepted so they can heal.  Until that occurs, the pain will stay with them, becoming a driving force in their adult lives (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-many-faces-addiction/201006/understanding-the-pain-abandonment).

Think about your life for a moment.  Have you ever felt abandoned?  Do you feel abandoned now?  Have you ever thought you had gotten over it only to hear a song on the radio or experience something else that triggers your memory and reminds you that no, you have not gotten over it yet.  Is that pain from abandonment a “driving force” in your life?

Tucked in today’s passage from the Letter to the Hebrews includes an often overlooked statement from Jesus, reassuring words of grace for all those who have experienced abandonment in any way on any level—“I will never leave you or forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).  This is very good news for anyone who has been abandoned by a parent or a spouse or a boyfriend or a girlfriend or a child or an employer—very good news for anyone who has found themselves running down the platform after the train—very good news for those who have found themselves stranded though they’ve done their best to deny it.

Jesus’ words to the abandoned remain the same—“I will never leave you or forsake you”—and that has always been true, is true now, and will remain true forever, because as today’s passage from the Letter to the Hebrews also tells us, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).

Back to Good Will Hunting for a moment…Will had been offered a high paying job in Boston but, his fear of abandonment issues having been acknowledged and some healing begun, Will instead decides to drive to California to try and win back Skylar, who had abandonment issues of her own stemming from the death of her father when she was fifteen.  On his way out of town Will drops a note off in Sean Maguire’s mailbox—“Sean, if the professor calls about that job, just tell him, ‘Sorry, I had to go see about a girl.’”  The movie ends with an extending scene of Will driving west, the past behind him, the beginning of a new day, the transformation of “The End” into “Chapter One.”

Jesus had to come see about you, and left heaven to drive west and win you back.

Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus showed compassion to abandoned people—like lepers who had been abandoned by their families and friends, like the woman at the well who had been abandoned by several husbands.

And at the Last Supper, knowing his time with his disciples was drawing to a close, Jesus wanted to make sure they did not feel abandoned by him—“I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus told them, “I am coming to you.  In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live” (John 14:18-19).

And yet later that night, after Jesus was betrayed by Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane, scripture tells us, “Then all the disciples deserted him and fled” (Matthew 26:56).  Every single one of the disciples left Jesus just when he needed them most.  Even in his final moments on the cross, Jesus felt abandoned—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  But his death atones for all the sin of both the abandoned and the abandoner.

Moreover, Jesus was not been abandoned to the grave (Psalm 16:10)—but was raised from the dead, and appeared to his disciples and at the Great Commission reassured them once again, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).  What is true for the disciples is true for you.

So the gospel is very good news for those of you who have been abandoned—“Jesus will never leave you or forsake you.”

Amen.