From the Pastor's Desk ...
"It All Begins with a Death"
By Pastor Ben Siebert
A mentor of mine recently challenged me to think of each Sunday in Lent using these words: It all begins with a death.
Lent begins February 14th with the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. Throughout Lent, we sing and hear the call of the familiar liturgical words adapted from Joel 2:13: "Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love." Joel writes this as he describes the great and terrible destruction coming toward the southern kingdom of Israel. This destruction, according to Joel, was allowed by God because of the broken covenant of God's people. Here, calamity is not brought by God because of God's pride, God's anger, or even God's weariness towards God's people. In Joel this is a punishment because of Israel's turning away from God's Law ~ the boundaries of Israel's covenant life ~ for generations, and this is a punishment God is ready and willing to withhold should the southern kingdom of Israel come back into the life of the covenant.
We have adapted this calling from Joel as our own calling in Lent, partly because Lent for centuries served as a time of baptismal preparation. This preparation echoes today, calling each of us rather bluntly to see "the devil and all the forces that defy God, the powers of this world that rebel against God, and the ways of sin that draw you from God" and dive back into the water of our baptismal covenant. (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, "Holy Baptism," Evangelical Lutheran Worship [Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2006], 229.) While our understanding of God as gracious and loving remains true, we are not the southern kingdom of Israel. We are not being taken over by foreign powers as a punishment from God, and we are not living into the same covenant that Israel was in the book of Joel.
In our baptism, in the bath that is the central mark of our covenant with God, we are not bound to the law of God. Paul, a man marked by both the covenant of Israel and the covenant of Christ, writes: "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life." (Romans 6:3-4)
Notice this: we are baptized into the death of Christ.
Where much has been made about the new life we receive in Christ, it all begins with a death. Our lives as we know them die. We die to sin, we die to ourselves, we die to our desires, we die to our daily patterns, we die to our preferences, we die to our commitments, we die to schedules, we die to sports, we die to hobbies, we die to careers, we lose our life for Christ's sake and the sake of the gospel and we die to everything. Everything. We live a new life, one reborn through Christ to be lived as anointed daughters and sons of God, sisters and brothers to Christ.
Make no mistake, the baptismal waters are not safe. They will wrestle from our grasp everything we hold dear, everything we love because we cannot and will not set them down on our own. "We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves," so the water and Word takes them for us. (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, "Setting One," Evangelical Lutheran Worship [Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2006], 95. In these waters we are reborn new, as people tied not to the everyday desires of this world but tied to Christ and Christ alone. Through Christ is our love of family, through Christ is our love for neighbor, through Christ is our work and our play. This is a life of great and abundant blessing, one that we are called to return to. And yet, we remember, it all begins with a death.
By Pastor Ben Siebert
I wanted to write this month about stewardship. As I began to write, though, I felt a sense to be clear with what our daily lives should look like as disciples of Christ. After all, in order to be a steward, a caretaker of God's good news and blessing for the world, we must understand God's will for our daily lives.
To begin simply, let us look at our Sunday worship for what our daily worship should look like. Our Sunday worship teaches us what is important, and how to be caretakers of God's good news and blessing for the whole world. There are literally thousands if not millions of ways to describe the central actions of congregational worship, but I want to reflect on one understanding proposed by Gordon Lathrop in his work The Pastor: A Spirituality. In this book, he centers the life of the congregation in worship. We are people of a holy bath and holy table. We are people of holy story and holy conversation with our God. He points to the Lord's Prayer as a place where we begin to understand the actions of daily life echoing beyond the Sunday assembly. Succinctly, he writes we are to lead lives of "bread and forgiveness." (Gordon Lathrop, The Pastor: A Spirituality [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011].)
Consider what life looks like when shaped by the patterns of bread and forgiveness, found in our Sunday assembly.
The bread of our worship seems ordinary at first glance. But we treat it differently than bread on the corner of our plate, sopping up the gravy of a heavy evening dinner or containing the cheese of our daily lunch. The bread of our holy table we see as a blessing of God; in this bread we see God. We use this bread in even and fair ways, giving the same amount to everyone, making sure everyone receives it, making sure everyone knows God is blessing him or her as well as their neighbor in it and through it. We do not expect that anyone has done enough to earn this bread. What if these actions accompanied our daily bread? What if these actions accompanied everything God uses to sustain our life and the life of our neighbor? See what Luther includes in his "daily bread" explanation. Daily bread is: everything in the necessities and nourishment for our bodies, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, farm, fields, livestock, money, property, an upright spouse, upright children, upright members of the household, upright and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, decency, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like. (Martin Luther, "Small Catechism of Martin Luther," in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, [Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006], 1160-1161.)
Our worship points us to our farms, our families, our money, our government, our everything being used in the way we use the bread of our worship. All of it is to be used evenly and fairly, giving the same amount to everyone, making sure everyone receives it, making sure everyone knows God is blessing him or her as well as their neighbor in it and through it. We are to know that no one has done enough to earn the falling rain and the growing grain, and the drying sun of the harvest. We are to see daily bread as a blessing of God. In this bread too, we see God. As we claim to be people of worship, we believe ourselves to be people of God's blessing and not people made by our own hand.
Again, consider the forgiveness found in worship. Here all, no matter who they are, no matter what authority they hold, and no matter what they have done, confess their sins. Here, everyone receives forgiveness by the authority of Christ. Here, baptismal waters reach deep into our hearts and souls and actions, daily drowning the creature that sins and raising a creature that gulps in new life. Here, we realize how truly sinful we are, and how truly and unconditionally graceful God is. Luther's understanding of confession and forgiveness leads him to write this: We ask in this prayer that our heavenly Father would not regard our sins nor deny these petitions on their account, for we are worthy of nothing for which we ask, not have we earned it. Instead we ask that God would give us all things by grace, for we sin daily and indeed deserve only punishment. So, on the other hand, we, too, truly want to forgive heartily and to do good gladly to those who sin against us. (Luther "Small Catechism" 1160-1161.)
As people centered in the worship of God, we are to be people who realize that our efforts do not earn forgiveness. We are to be people who recognize that forgiveness is always a blessing of grace from God, experienced directly from God as well as through family, neighbor, and stranger. We are to be people who are open first about our own failures before calling out someone else's. We are to be people who are open to listening about the pain we inflict on our families, neighbors, and strangers from these very people. We are to sit in the silence that echoes after a confession, hoping fervently that God as well as neighbor would be gracious toward us with our sins drawn out into the light. Our confessions are to include a commitment to living differently than we have in the past, and seek reconciliation with family, neighbor, and stranger. Like our daily bread, our daily actions are to be steeped in the honesty of confession and the graceful nature of forgiveness.
To be good stewards, we must be people of such worshipful, holistic bread and forgiveness. Truthfully, we cannot do even this to any great ability. But God, by God's own grace and blessing, raises up glorious things in our honest and best attempts.
In your every day, taste and see that the Lord is good.
In your every day, know that God who is rich in mercy loved us even when we were dead in sin, and made us alive together with Christ. By grace you have been saved.
In your every day, be worshipful stewards of bread and forgiveness.
(written: January 2018)
"Movement of The Holy Spirit"
By Pastor Ben Siebert
This year marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 thesis regarding the church to the Wittenberg door (1517-2017). While it is good to celebrate our heritage, it is also right to heed the Holy Spirit's ever reforming movement in the present.
A Holy Spirit text I often return to is Acts 10:1-11:18. A centurion named Cornelius (a Gentile) is called by an angel of God to send for Peter (a Jew), while at the same time Peter has a vision of a sheet falling from heaven with unclean animals on it. A voice calls "Get up, Peter; kill and eat," but Peter refuses out of faithfulness. The voice persists, challenging Peter's understanding of God and scripture: "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." (Acts 10:13-14; 10:15. An example of law regarding clean and unclean animals can be found in Leviticus 11.)
Peter, still confused, is summoned by Cornelius' servants. As Peter arrives, he realizes the vision was not about food alone, but also about who had been seen as unclean people. As Peter shares the story of Christ, he sees the Holy Spirit at work in the Gentiles, blessed by the Spirit even while participating in unclean eating and other practices considered an abomination. When Peter testifies to the church in Jerusalem how he had seen the movement of the Spirit in his vision and experience with the Gentiles, some refuse Peter's understanding while others celebrate the movement of the Spirit. Struggles in affirming Gentiles as equal and valid members of the church continued throughout the New Testament.
This text can be both terrifying and liberating. In the time of the Reformation fear came bubbling forth from the church as Luther followed the calling of God in dynamic reform. In recent years this same fear bubbled forth as the church rightly recognized the Spirit's longstanding blessing and movement amongst all types of sexual orientation and identity. Questions arise from such a text: How are we to know what is faithful? How do we discern the voice of God? Why would God do something different than past scriptural calling? In the midst of such questions and fear, the church has -- we have -- a temptation to resist, scared of being unfaithful while ignoring the Spirit that is the source of all faithfulness.
And yet, as we hear a calling in this same scripture to follow the Holy Spirit into unfamiliar experiences, we witness Christ crucified and risen in various lives and cultures and situations -- even our own. As Christians, we recognize that justice, grace, and mercy belong to God, and we are to follow wherever God will lead us. To follow God was the calling of the Israelites in the desert, the calling of the disciples in the life of Jesus, and the calling of the church present in the movement of the Holy Spirit.
As we celebrate our Reformation heritage, let us also lift up our own calling as disciples bound to the movement of the Holy Spirit, honoring whatever and whoever it calls holy. Should the Spirit call us to reclaim our heritage, let us do so with courage. Should the Spirit call us into unfamiliar experiences, let us also go with courage, recognizing the authority of the Spirit in the lives of Christian disciples and the promise of the Spirit to guide us along the way.
So tell me, Trinity: Where do we see the movement of the Holy Spirit these days, and where are we being summoned into greater faithfulness?
By Pastor Ben Siebert
What do you love about Trinity? What first brought you to Trinity? What keeps you coming back to Trinity? What is our call together as a community of believers? As we focus this month once again on stewardship, it is important to open up a piece of the conversation that we often ignore, namely why we care for our congregation. I am not claiming that the conversation of our call to care for and share the gifts of time, talent, and treasure is unimportant; in fact, I find it foundational. Yet, so is this conversation, the subject of what keeps us coming back and what our calling is as a congregation.
So, as you read this, take a few moments to consider what keeps you coming back to, or in relationship with, Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church of Arendtsville, along with why you believe Trinity exists at all:
From my own vantage point, I see many experiences that draw people to our community of believers (I certainly do not claim to see all experiences, and even believe that there are many more experiences that I will never see of Trinity than ones that I will). Some of these experiences are obvious, like the ways that we mark the gifts of life. Hundreds of different faces are drawn each year into our community to celebrate new life and baptism, to celebrate God's self-sacrificial gift of life in First Communion, to celebrate the love of God that graces us in love of one another in weddings, and the bittersweet threshold of life everlasting in funerals. These faces are often not ones that I see every week, but instead faces that rely on Trinity as a lighthouse, always proclaiming the gospel in a way that anchors the most life-giving yet trying moments of life.
Some of these experiences are less obvious, like the individuals that dwell with our community but a few times a year. Each of these individual's experience with our community and with God is unique, yet all have witnessed the impact of faith on the life of the believer, whether personally or in the life of the one(s) who draw(s) them in. For better or for worse, these individuals at the very least might see that belief in Christ leads people into togetherness even when it is difficult, into grace and mercy even when we desire justice, into love and service to our neighbor even when it is outside our reflexive behavior.
Most obvious to me is the community that gathers here weekly in our Sunday assemblies and throughout the week in our cooperative efforts. These people come once again for a variety of reasons, but one that I often summarize in the words of a familiar hymn. We proclaim the gospel of Christ "for those who know it best seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest." (Katherine Hankey, "I Love to Tell the Story in Evangelical Lutheran Worship. #661. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006.) This, along with a combination of all of the above, is the reason that keeps me coming back. I need to hear the gospel, I need to hear God's grace.
What you thought of above, and these various, non-exhaustive understandings of what brings others to Trinity combine into an understanding of what we are in the community of Arendtsville and Upper Adams County. It also leads us into the second question posed at the beginning: Why does Trinity exist?
These two questions do not have the same answer, but they are related. I do believe that Trinity exists for the sake of marking the moments of life with professions of faith, to welcome in wandering people of life's journey for a moment's exploration of faith, to weekly (at least) proclaim the gospel of Christ to those who have made it their life's foundation. Yet, I believe we are not strictly people of worship services. Trinity exists as a community to explore. We exist to explore scripture together in response to seasons of life. We exist to learn the faith from generations before us, and pass the faith to generations after us. We exist to be the embodied Christ in our area, to become hands and feet for the will of Christ in the communities throughout Adams County.
Both what keeps us coming back to Trinity and why Trinity exists at all are in part what and why we have been called by God to be stewards in this world. In this season of our lives, we are Trinity. We are the ones who in the sharing of gifts and worship together God uses to proclaim the gospel in our unique way to the community and the world. We are stewards of these experiences, of one another's need for the good news of God in Christ Jesus, and of the future of our congregation.
As we focus on our stewardship in this half-way mark in the year, consider what God is calling you to be a steward of in this life together as Trinity. Thanks be to God for the good gifts that have been, currently are being, and will be shared!
(written: June 2017)
"Remember the Foundation of Your Baptism"
By Pastor Ben Siebert
Over the course of our Lenten journey, Trinity has been focusing each Sunday on the foundational building blocks of our baptismal identities. The Lectionary for Year A focuses on these things rather overtly, beginning on the First Sunday of Lent with a warning. We are to be aware of ourselves and our surroundings during this journey, for temptation is plentiful in our baptismal lives as brothers and sisters of the Christ who was tempted after 40 days in the desert. (Matthew 4:1-11) The Second Sunday followed with a conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus where we were reminded that our baptism and the waters of baptism for the whole world are rooted not in God's vengeance, but in God's love for us. (John 3:1-17) The Third Sunday of Lent we remembered just how far the life giving waters of God flow as Jesus revealed these things to the Samaritan woman at the well. (John 4:5-42) On the Fourth Sunday of Lent our lives were lifted up to the light-truth of Jesus, showing both the things in our hearts that we may rather hide from as well as the very moments of God's grace. (John 9:1-41) Finally, we met Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus in the midst of Thomas and Martha's faithfulness, witnessing the resurrection and the life in a way that still confounds us on the Fifth Sunday of Lent. (John 11:1-45)
As any journey might bring, we may find ourselves at this point ready for Lent to be over, ready for Easter, and ultimately ready for rest. Yet, like the Israelites standing on the edge of the Promised Land, I believe it is important for us to remember the journey of our immediate past and the God who led us through.
May you know that there is no place in life you will ever find yourself where these building blocks cannot follow. There is no person you will ever become where these building blocks do not apply. For you, there will always be God's love. For you, there will always be the waters of baptism and the food of Jesus. For you there will always be the light of Jesus, there will always be resurrection and life. There will also always be temptation, but with the love of God we boldly live life in joyful service to God and neighbor.
As we stand on the banks of Easter and Spring and everything else 2017 might have in store, remember the foundation of your baptism. If you should ever feel yourself back wandering in the desert, remember your baptism, and know that God's promises to you never break. If this is not enough, wander your way back to Trinity or any other place where the Gospel is purely preached and sacraments rightly administered, whether it has been a week or a lifetime since we saw you last. It is my prayer that God will continue to call us and enable us to proclaim the gospel each Sunday. Here, together, we will point you each week to God, and to the baptismal promises of love, of living water and food, of light, and of resurrection and life in the midst of the things that cause us to wander.
Thanks be to God for the waters of baptism that cleanse and claim us all.
(written: April 2017)
"Thank The Lord! Alleluia!"
By Pastor Ben Siebert
A year ago, on a particularly muggy morning, afternoon, and evening, my brother and I loaded up all of my stuff from my apartment in Philadelphia and hauled it all down to Arendtsville. Upon arrival, we began unloading a truck full of what we just got done loading, greeted by bread, jam, eggs, and bacon on the kitchen counter and an incredible gift basket from the congregation. Richard Bachman, council president at the time, stopped in to see how we were doing. Though I was tired, I could tell that a whole congregation of folk I had yet to sit down and talk with was trying to make me feel welcome. Lacking sleep but pumping adrenaline, I dropped my brother off the next day for his flight back home, and returned to Arendtsville ~ briefly alone and somewhat scared.
And then, you did what you always do. You invited me, like you invite one another, into your homes and lives and worship and community. You pointed me towards people to visit, towards things to be involved in. You gracefully helped me understand the worship practices of our congregation, you showed me traditions and yet welcomed my own thoughts into the conversation. Surrounding area pastors reached out to show me the town and people and proverbial ropes, and invited me into their circles and cooperative work too (Susan McCarthy has done this to an incredible degree, one that I cherish more than I could ever begin to describe). Beyond myself, you've invited other families to worship and What's Cookin' and Vacation Bible School and into your homes. Beyond our building, you have invited other congregations and neighbors into your places of work and life, cultivating a culture of good news and hope that feels too great and too wonderful for someone such as myself to ever be in communion with.
There has been much said about the excitement and energy surrounding the congregation and its youth members and cooperative ministry and our near and far neighbors. I cannot say it enough: this energy does not come from me. Rather, I am energized by it! When I have said this to various members of our congregation, though, they have remarked that it does not come from them either!
But we know where good things come from, don't we?
The mystery of our lives is that for some reason, a too great and too wonderful God has come to dwell with us. The Spirit has come to bring us closer to one another and to our neighbor. The Son has gifted us with joy which we readily share, with community in which we readily lean on one another, with stories of struggle and joy that blossom in one another the very image of Christ from depths of our lives. I don't know why God has blessed us with such gifts. I do know that the more we share these gifts, the more this excitement grows.
We've received good gifts. Gifts of community, of cooperation, of sharing life and of bearing one another's needs. I believe that our task is simple in concept and complex in process: care for these gifts we've been given, so that everyone ~ known and unknown ~ might benefit from them.
In our liturgy, there is an option for a song of thanksgiving after Communion. I've been singing this little song to myself this whole year, and want to share with you what I believe expresses both our shared excitement and calling from God.
"Thank the Lord and sing God's praise!
Tell everyone what God has done!
Let all who seek the Lord rejoice and bear his holy name.
He recalls his promises and leads his people forth in joy with shouts of thanksgiving.
Alleluia indeed! I thank God that I've been called here, and for the gifts we share together.
Pastor Ben Siebert
(written: June 2015)
About Pastor Siebert ...
Pastor Siebert began his pastoral ministry with Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Arendtsville, on Sunday, June 15, 2014.
He is from Celina, Ohio, and spent his youth on his family's farm in Celina, which is in northwest Ohio farm country. At the age of 12, he felt that he wanted to be a pastor, a calling which developed over time while coexisting well with his continued love of farm life. Following high school, he attended Bluffton University, and in 2010, he received his Bachelors of Arts degree with honors from Bluffton with a major in psychology and a minor in Biblical studies. After college, Pastor Siebert continued his studies at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, where he focused more intensely on the connection of Biblical, pastoral, and theological training and practical efforts in congregational ministry. On May 20, 2014, he graduated with honors from the seminary in Philadelphia with a Masters of Divinity degree and also received the senior Paul J. Hoh/Elizabeth Reed Award.
Pastor Siebert was ordained on June 6, 2014, during the ELCA Lower Susquehanna Synod Assembly at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. He was officially installed as Trinity's new pastor on July 12, 2014.