A letter to all the saints at St. Elizabeth, from Deacon Thom

            Not that long ago, in a time innocently unaware of social distancing and self-isolation, Zoom was barely on my radar screen. Now there’s hardly a day that goes by when I’m not looking into the screen of my computer zooming something with someone, somewhere: the last few remaining seminary classes, clergy check-in calls, virtual worship with my sending church in Vermont. One night last week my classmates and I even got together by Zoom for a virtual party and game of truth or dare. If not Zoom, there’s Facebook. If not Facebook, there’s texting with friends and family. If there’s not texting, there’s Facetime. Today I started a new volunteer position as a tele-chaplain working remotely from Vermont at the facility in New Hampshire where I interned two summers ago. Well, not at the facility, but you know. There’s so much technology we have at our fingertips, and at this moment in time when it is so important to stay home, stay safe, and stay connected, I thank God for that—even if my eyes do go a little wonky by the end of the day. I mean, really, can you imagine riding out this temporary formation as “church dispersed” without such technology?
            Think of Saint Paul, for example, traveling between communities of believers dispersed all across the Mediterranean that were days—if not weeks—apart by land or sea. Saint Paul, the great letter writer. There was no Zooming to Thessaloniki, or first-century Facetiming with the folks in Ephesus. There wasn’t even a Priority Mail option—because, well, there wasn’t even a post office. Paul’s letters made their way across the miles by faithful couriers like Tychicus and Timothy who walked them from the sender’s hand to the receiver’s. Once delivered, the letters were often read aloud by those who carried them to the communities for whom they were intended. It isn’t difficult to imagine that those letters were perhaps read in a hushed voice, for there were surely times when it was also not safe for the members of the house churches in Corinth or Philippi to gather together in one place, albeit for different reasons than community spread virus.
            But have you ever noticed that Paul’s letters don’t start off as we would expect, with a salutation of something like “Dear So-and-so”? Different from our letters today, and certainly from text messaging, in Greek letter-writing format the name of whoever was sending the letter was mentioned first: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus…” After the salutation, the typical Greek letter of the time would contain a short blessing; Saint Paul characteristically wrote some version of “grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”. Next in the epistolary, or letter-writing, style of the time, there would be a thanksgiving. Only then, after what appear to be merely introductory formalities were out of the way did the letter writer get down to the real business of what needed to be communicated. At the close of the letter the writer might convey additional greetings and conclude with a final blessing or benediction.
            There’s a reason why Paul’s letters comprise a good deal of our lectionary we read through each Sunday. The message that Paul conveyed in the main body of his letters—selfless regard for others and unwavering love of Christ—is certainly foundational to our faith. But I’ve been thinking lately, in this strange time of Covid-19, that perhaps those formal introductory salutations and closings, the benedictions and blessings and thanksgivings for each other, are not merely formalities, but just as important and something not to be glossed over. For they are the bits where Paul’s love for the communities with which he was communicating—and his longing to be with them again—is most apparent:
  • “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you” (Philippians 1:3-4)
  • “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?” (1 Thessalonians 3:9)
  • “For I am longing to see you so that . . . we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith” (Romans 1:1-2)
  • “Without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers” (Romans 1:9)
            I have avoided writing this letter for some time. Then, when I finally sat down to write it, I had no idea how to begin. The first time I made my way to St. Elizabeth’s was a little over two years ago—on a Sunday in February in the year of our Lord, 2018—when I was greeted by a couple of Dave’s. My friend and fellow seminarian Phyllis Bess invited me to visit her field placement; she thought I would like it there. I did. The following Saturday I met with Father Daniel over smoothies at Juiceland, and—well, that’s how I became your seminarian. And how all of you became the community that will always be remembered in my prayers. Unceasingly. I give thanks for all of you, not only for your faith in Christ Jesus, but for the gift of allowing me to live into my ministry and calling. For encouraging me to stretch beyond my comfort zone. For teaching me not only the correct pronunciation of “y’all” but its true meaning. Along the way there have been tender and light-hearted moments; forgiveness and Acts and listening to the heartbeat of the Psalms together. One time there was even lollipop cake!
When I left Austin for Spring Break this year, I could not have imagined that we wouldn’t be able to gather together in person for two months or longer. Harder still to wrap my mind around the fact that I will graduate seminary without a commencement gathering, and that my last Sunday with y’all as your seminarian has already come and gone without our knowing it. But I take heart in what Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, after having to leave that community abruptly, that while for a short time we have been separated from each other, that separation has only been in person, not in heart (1:17). Paul’s letters communicated so much more than correspondence; they sustained those who were temporarily separated from each other. His written words were food for the soul. As Christians, this ought not be difficult for us to imagine: the word as sacrament, as holy, as embodying presence.
And so, let me finally begin and end here with what I have been trying to say all along in this meandering epistle: Thom, a follower of Christ, to all the faithful, God’s beloved in Buda. Grace to you and peace. I thank God every time I remember you.

And I always will.