October 18, 2020, 2020 Hindsight, Snail Mail, Pastor David Tatgenhorst
I Thessalonians 1:1-10 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. 2 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. 6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. 9 For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
I invite you to turn your attention toward the Holy Spirit in our midst - either through reflections on the words of scripture you have heard or the love that is in your presence right now, this moment through the Spirit of the Living God. Notice that Spirit in this moment of quiet
October 18, 2020 2020 Hindsight: Snail Mail St. Luke
Think for a moment about a letter that you wrote or received. Maybe you kept one or more of them. Think about letters that meant enough for you to save it. Think about letters that you sent that meant enough for someone else to save them.
When I was a freshman in college my father wrote me a letter every day. He wrote the letters on his preferred yellow legal paper tab. The letters were full of advice on every little thing he could think of - much of it about making friends and caring for people. As I opened my little mail box every day and found a letter or two from him, I really didn’t realize how good I had it. I took those letters for granted.
The letters I didn’t take for granted that year were letters from my girlfriend back in Cincinnati. She sent me letters on pastel colored paper, limned out like poetry, and full of loving words. Those were the letters that really caught my attention. And I saved them for a long time, may still have them somewhere. They were beautiful - until we started to grow apart. Then they started to be painful and difficult.
Just this week, my brother Jim sent me a copy of a letter I sent him from college, I could tell it was from my senior year. I was giving him advice - on how to remember his dreams of all things. That’s how I could tell it was senior year, because I was taking a course on dreams and poetry. I was impressed that Jim had saved that letter all these years - 45 years.
Letters are like that. Especially paper letters, sent by snail mail, the old fashioned way, sent through the United States Postal Service. Although letters from other countries are also really exciting. I used to collect stamps, and getting a letter from another country was really thrilling to a stamp collector. I have a few letters that my dear friend Phil gave me that I had sent to him on thin airmail paper to Israel.
With 2020 hindsight I look back on those letter writing and receiving experiences with a little nostalgia and longing. These days the mail is kind of sparse. The only thing that gets me excited is an envelope with a check in it. — Or a package. I can get energized by a package coming with something I ordered and am looking forward to.
I don’t get many love letters. And I don’t send many. Everything goes through email - or texts. Sometimes they can have some love in them, but it’s not the same. During the pandemic, I am appreciating some of the old ways of communicating and being together even more. Last week’s worship together was really delightful. Yesterday’s workday with folks was sweet.
I got to thinking about mail as I studied this letter from Paul over the past couple of weeks. Nancy read the beginning of the earliest known letter we have from Paul, which means it’s probably the earliest writing in the New Testament, probably written in 49 or 50 CE. Paul wrote this letter to the people of Thessaloniki - or Thessalonica as we say it in English. I was there once, about the time I was sending the overseas letters that my friend saved and gave to me. Thessaloniki is in the northeastern corner of Greece. It’s a pretty long way from Israel.
I’m always amazed when I think of Paul sailing there, gathering a community of Jewish and Gentile Christians and then moving on. It was like he was a circuit rider. He couldn’t get back to them, so he sent a letter. There was no postal service, so I don’t even know how the letter got back to the the community of the Thessalonians. I guess he sent it with a friend.
We don’t know if this is his first letter, but it’s the earliest one we have from Paul and you can see why people passed it around and saved it - for 2000 years. It’s a beautiful and powerful letter.
They saved it because it contained some good advice about faith - better than the advice I got from my father. Paul advised them to keep the faith - to be imitators of him and the evangelists with him who were traveling and spreading the message of the Living God in Christ. He advised them to put their faith in Christ rather than in the empire or in the idols of the empire. Later in the letter, Paul derides the catch phrase “peace and security,” which was a slogan of the empire. He tells them not to pay attention to the people of the empire going on and on about “peace and security,” but instead to remember, as he says in this passage, remember “before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Right from his first letters, Paul was talking about faith, hope and love. Faith, hope and love are more important for Paul than worrying about law and order, peace and security.
They saved Paul’s letter because it was full of hope. Paul assured them of the grace of God that would save them in the dangerous times they were in, from destruction and loss and hate. Paul assured them that Jesus was coming back soon, and that they could count on the Living God to be with them. Later Paul would modify somewhat his timeline and expectation about when Jesus was coming back, and in fact people started to feel like Jesus was already with them again because their hope and faith become so strong.
They saved Paul’s letter because it was full of love. These are the letters we are most likely to save, don’t you think? love letters. And this letter from the very first words is full of love. Paul was so proud of this community in Thessaloniki. He almost sounds surprised that they had become such powerful witnesses to the power of the Living God. Inspire of persecution, trouble and affliction, he sees them living the Exodus story again and again, moving out of slavery in Egypt, moving from false security into peace, hope and love, from slavery to a community of mutuality and caring.
He loves them because they have become such wonderful models of faith as people hear about how their lives have changed, and how they are living out the love that he has shared with them. They saved Paul’s letter because it was worth reading again and again, reminding them of what was really important, and God’s love would bring them through the difficult time they were in.
The Thessalonians saved Paul’s letter for the same reason the Philippians saved the letter we read last week - because it was a substitute for them for having Paul there in person. Paul couldn’t be with the Philippians because he was in jail. He couldn’t be with the Thessalonians because he was traveling to spread the good news of faith, peace, hope and love to other communities all over the Middle East. The letter was a manifestation for them of God’s faith, hope and love.
And that’s how we take it too. In our times of difficulty and confusion and turmoil, we go back to a love letter - a letter that reminds us that God loves us and expects us to live into the love.
I spoke with our District Superintendent this week, Evelyn Kent Clarke, and she told me a true story about a pastor who preached about love every week. Every week love was the topic. The people noticed and thought it seemed ok, but finally, someone asked him why he only talked about love, and if he ever gave sermons on another subject. And the pastor said, “Yes, I have sermons on a lot of other subjects, and when you when you reach the point where you understand God loves you, I will preach them.”
My dad wrote the same advice in letter after letter - “Make a new friend today.” Maybe he wasn’t sure if I ever got it - his constant sermon about love.
God has written you a love letter. Paul wrote it down for us, but it comes from God. Jesus brought it to us in the first place - this letter of love, so powerful that people have saved it and savored it for all these years - and we’re still trying to believe it, still trying to re-read it and take it in. to believe that God in Christ loves us so much that we can trust in God’s faith, hope and love, over the ‘peace and security’ of the empire.
God loves us as we are, in all our brokenness, all our tussling with each other, all our confusion. God loves us so much that not even death will stop that love, not even the death of God’s own Beloved.
So today, listen to the love from this love letter - and think about writing a letter to someone you love. Let them know how much you love them, and if they can hear the language of God’s love, let them know God loves them too. You never know, that letter might be one they save and re-read for a long time.
Responsive Hymn 2223 They’ll Know We are Christians By Our Love