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Alone No More

I Thessalonians 2.1-8

The book and movie titled The Help tell the story of Jackson, Mississippi during the tumult of the 1960’s.  It tells the story of two worlds.  One, it highlights the world of white, upper class, high society women – the bridge clubs and benefit balls.  But it also tells the stories of their black housekeeper and nannies, those who basically raise their children while their mothers and fathers live a world apart.

It is a stark contrast between the care and love that these black women show the children in their care, and the neglect, abuse, and abandonment shown by their actual parents.  In one haunting scene, one of these nannies checks the diaper of a little girl to find out that it had not been checked since she had left last, far too long to leave it unchanged.

It is a painful story of neglect and abandonment.

Now, most of us probably would not say that we have been victims of such a level of abandonment, but we get the concept, don’t we?  How often do we feel a sense of abandonment in our own lives?  Some of us have stories of actual physical abandonment from some point in our lives.  But I think that all of us understand feelings of abandonment in one form or another:

  • How many of us feel abandoned as we grieve the loss of a spouse, feeling alone and lonely, and even catching ourselves angry at our spouse for leaving us too soon?
  • How many of us feel abandoned by friends? Those who move away or move to a different stage in life or simply drift away until they aren’t who we remembered they were?
  • How many of us feel abandoned by our jobs, unceremonially downsized or let go or just plain fired? Or even in retirement, we thought that we would be taken care of when we got to this age, but now we are worrying about budgets or tightening our belts in ways that we never thought we would have to?
  • How many of us feel abandoned by our families, who refuse to support us because of something that we said or did? Or abandoned by watching their busy schedules take all of our time and leaving us with exhaustion, fatigue, and that constant nagging feeling that you are supposed to be somewhere…. Abandonment is not only being alone.  What does the old song say, “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.  Two can be as bad as one. It’s the loneliest number since the number one.”  Sometimes we are always with a crowd…but still feel alone.
  • How many of us feel abandoned by our bodies, unable to do the things that we once were able to do, because of age or injury or illness?
  • How many of us feel the abandonment and pain of divorce? Of spousal abuse? Of sexual assault or harassment?
  • How many of us feel abandoned by institutions in our lives? The political party that we once knew that has changed in significant and painful ways?  Our alma mater that is almost unrecognizable anymore.  Even the church that we have loved that has faced a changing world in ways that we cannot feel comfortable with.

We know what it’s like to feel abandoned.

And while each of these examples or events of abandonment look temporary or even relatively minor, Andrew Lester writes that they represent something larger happening in our brains.  He writes about the “dread of isolation” and suggests that when we feel abandoned, it taps into a larger, deeper, existential feeling of isolation.  When we feel abandoned in one of these ways, we feel alone.  He explains that each of us write our own future narratives – the stories about what we think our future will look like.  And when we experience this abandonment, it magnifies the feeling that we might become alone, might die alone.  Isolation and abandonment lead to future stories of despair and pain….at a metaphysical level.

So we get it.  We understand it logically.  Emotionally.  Personally.  Abandonment hurts.

So what can we do about it?

I think the answer lies in today’s passage of Scripture.  But it isn’t exactly obvious what is going on here at surface level.  So let me give you a deeper picture of 1 Thessalonians.

Basically, the story begins with Paul’s second missionary journey.  His first journey was in Palestine and Asia Minor, but this second journey crossed over into new territory: Macedonia.  Here in a new context, Paul found himself running up against a new set of foes.

The first stop was Philippi.  Looking for a synagogue, he instead found a Bible study out on the river outside of town, presumably because there were not enough Jewish males in the city to have a synagogue.  He sat and prayed with them and talked to them about Jesus, and converted many (including Lydia).  So everything was great, right?  No.  Because the prevailing religion of the community was a civic faith that had various deities, but at the heart was a Roman nationalism that suggested that Caesar alone was king.  If there was a second faith, it was capitalism.  An important trade city, Philippi had a lot of merchants (including Lydia).  So, here comes Paul.  The first thing that he does is say that Jesus is king – not Caesar.  So he ticks off a bunch of nationalists.  Then, he exorcises a demon from a girl who had been telling fortunes.  But the owners of this slave girl then lost their parlor trick, and thus their income.  So, he ticks off a bunch of capitalists.  The nationalists and the capitalists take turns beating him up and put him in jail.  Eventually (long story…there are earthquakes, jailers ready to hang themselves, Paul using his Roman citizen card to get out of jail…literally) he leaves town, new church planted and ready to find a new community.

The next stop is Thessalonica.  He starts to debate in the synagogues about the validity of Jesus – three Sabbaths in a row, Acts says.  And so, he makes enemies of a third group, along with the nationalists and the capitalists: the religious establishment.  Those who were afraid of losing their control and power through the synagogue got angry enough that they went out to the nationalists and the capitalists (it actually says they hired “ruffians in the marketplace.”) and got them riled up. Just like Philippi. They are ready to kill Paul and Silas: “Look what he is doing, declaring that Jesus is king and not Caesar.”  Acts says that these men are “turning the world upside down.”  But, unbeknownst to the mob, Paul’s converts have stolen them away out of town and up the road to Berea.  They rough up the rest of the church – including Jason, who hosted the house church, but let them go.

Talk about abandonment.  The next morning, the Thessalonians woke up leaderless, having lost the one who gave them clarity and direction, and they didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye.  But their abandonment was even more metaphysical than that.  Paul had told them that Jesus was coming back.  And so, they fully expected it to come not only in their lifetimes, but “anytime now.”  But after Paul had left them with this promise, some of the members had died.  Those who were supposed to be taken up with Jesus upon his return were now gone.  And the grief that these members felt was profound.  Not only did they miss their friends, but they feared that they would not share in the eternity with Christ.  Their abandonment was physical, emotional, and spiritual.

Meanwhile, the next morning Paul wakes up in neighboring Berea with a serious guilt hangover.  He is no longer in the church that he was helping to build.  His friends and fellow church planters were beat up and imprisoned because they were looking for him.  He didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye.  Now, he worries that they are mad that he abandoned them.  He is worried that they are not going to understand the faith and what is important about Jesus.  He is worried that they will see this oppression and run away from the faith, claiming it is too hard.  He is worried that those who he convinced about Jesus will now be targeted by those who ran him out of town, either trying to convince them to change their minds or punishing them if they don’t.  He is worried that they will think that Paul and his Gospel are just a fly by night trick, that he is a charlatan trying to bilk them out of their money.  But if he goes back now, then he will endanger Jason and the others, as well as probably die immediately and publically, and effectively kill the church. He has to let it blow over.  Even though it kills him on the inside.

So, he does the next best thing.  He writes a letter.  Now, this seems obvious to those of us who have spent our lives reading all of these letters of Paul.  But this was actually a new thing.  Scholars think that I Thessalonians was actually Paul’s first letter.  They suggest that this is actually the oldest piece of Christian literature, written around 50.  So, Paul writes this letter, and then sends Timothy to take it back to the church at Thessalonica.  In this letter, he is trying to address all of these guilty things in his head, but also likely the concerns that at least some of the Thessalonians actually did have.  He is trying to explain to them not to abandon the faith that they have come to believe.  He is trying to get them to treat each other with love and care and community.  And he is trying to explain why he left – that it wasn’t that he wanted to or that he didn’t love them profoundly.  “Buck up.  Stay strong. Wish I could be there.  Love ya.” Signed, Paul.  In short, this is Paul’s answer to the question of abandonment: a healthy dose of love, rooted in the Gospel.

So now, what about us?  How does this help answer our abandonment?

First, who is your Paul?  Did you catch that language in the passage today about the way that Paul cared about the Thessalonians?  Our love for you is “gentle” he wrote.  We want to share with you not only our gospel, but “our own selves.”  “You have become dear to us.”  “Like a nurse caring for her own child.”  Notice how powerful that is: a nurse is someone who is naturally caring and supportive to all of her (or his) patients…how much more caring are they to their own children?  Who in your life is like that?

Chances are, there is some sitting in a room in some version of Berea somewhere, thinking about you.  Praying for you.  Missing you.  Willing to encourage and care for you as a nurse might care for his or her children.  Often, when we think we are abandoned, the reality is that we are not as alone as we think.  Pick up the phone and give them a call.  Maybe, ironically enough, they feel abandoned by you.  But even if not, there is someone who cares about you.

Or maybe they are in this room!  Maybe your Paul is someone here at church.  Maybe there are a dozen Paul’s waiting to connect or reconnect to you, right here in this room.  Perhaps it is finally time to join a Sunday school class or come on Wednesday nights.  How can you reconnect to the Paul in your life?

Second, and this is the most important message that Paul wanted the Thessalonians to hear: you are never alone.  Not only were they dealing with this sense of abandonment by Paul, but over the months since he left, some of the members of the church have died.  But Paul promised that Jesus was coming back, and so now they were freaking out a little bit about what would happen if they died before he came back.  It’s that future story stuff that Andrew Lester writes about: existential anxiety.

That’s when Paul comes to the rescue with what is really the theme of the whole book: hope.  The Greek word is elpis, and scholar William Jackson reminds us that this is not a superficial hope, like, “I hope the Chiefs win today or I hope it doesn’t rain this afternoon.”  But a profound and existential “confidence in the presence and power found in the relationship with Jesus Christ.”  Paul tells them that when one of their own dies, grieve as they must.  But don’t grieve without hope.  Grasp onto the hope that comes from the knowledge and relationship of Christ in their lives.  Put on the “helmet of hope” he says, in order to guard against the despair and anxiety that you feel.

Which is, by the way, according to Andrew Lester the antidote to this existential anxiety: existential hope.  Elpis.  Deep and profound hope and confidence that regardless of how we feel abandoned, we are never alone.  Lester says that hope changes our future story from one of despair and isolation to one of anticipation and joy.  Hope makes all the difference.  You are never alone.  Maybe that is why Jesus’s last words to his disciples were “I will never leave you or forsake you.”

A healthy dose of love, rooted in the Gospel.

The book and movie The Help was painful to watch in many ways.  And yet, there was hope.  One of the key characters, a nanny named Aibileen, provides a beautiful picture of hope.  One of the little girls that she took care of – the one with the unchanged diaper – was often the target of her parents hateful and angry words.  So each time that she was assaulted in this way, Aibileen would sit her down on her lap, and look her in the eye, and tell her: “You is kind.  You is smart.  You is important.”  An antidote to abandonment.  An embodiment of hope.

This is Paul’s message to the Thessalonians.  And to us as well.  I hope you know this deeply: You is kind.  You is smart.  You is important.

You are loved beyond measure by the one who Created you.

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