The Recruiting Officer

Good morning my fellow St. Andreans — family, neighbors, and wide circles of friends. It’s wonderful to see you!  Always a special day in the life of this congregation, and this particular St. Andrew’s Day one that is stirring up for me deeper pools of emotions, layers and layers of memories — as perhaps you might expect. As we said in the Parish Facebook page note this week, “the Rector’s sermon may be a little longer than usual this Sunday, but when he’s finished he’ll be finished.”

I do know that no matter where the currents of life and ministry take us in the future, Susy and I will always, always, feel very deeply that we are members of this congregational family. Certainly wherever we are on the Sunday before Thanksgiving Day, we will hear bagpipes — if not with our ears, then with the ears of our hearts, and with much love and truly much gratitude for all that you have meant to us over so many years.

If organ and choir and bagpipe and drum are all a very familiar part of St. Andrew’s Day for us, so also this reading from Matthew 4, as Bill read for us a few minutes ago. This my 26th St. Andrew’s Day to preach from this pulpit, in 25 years and five months of service in this parish. The missionary calling of the first disciples — our patron Andrew and his brother Peter, and then the two brothers James and John, the sons of Zebedee. It was an honorable occupation for them, of course, to fish for fish. But now this call to join Jesus in a greater task. To cast out the net of the gospel over the sea of the world, and to fish for people!  Such a familiar reading, yet even so always something fresh about it, with an edge of excitement. We lean forward, close our eyes, imagine what it would be like to be standing in their place, hearing and seeing Jesus as they did that day. One chapter of life comes abruptly to an end, and another begins. A watershed moment.  As Matthew tells the story here these young men don’t even seem to take the time to go back home to pick up a toothbrush. They’re off and running.

John tells us in chapter 1 of his gospel that Andrew and Peter had been among the followers of John the Baptist. They along with Philip and Nathanael first met Jesus in the days following his baptism by John in the Jordan River. But a lot has happened since then. Most notably, John’s arrest and beheading turned things upside down for his followers, and most of them had scattered back to their homes and villages out in the countryside. I suppose they thought that was the end of the story.

But here, now, Jesus seeks them out. He finds them. He speaks. And his Word has unexpected power.  Priorities are reordered. Plans are changed. A new day dawns.

The setting may be remote. But what makes this story familiar isn’t only that we read the same words here every November. It’s because what happened then, in this long ago, far away moment by the Sea of Galilee, what happened in the lives of these four young fishermen, is what happens for us also, when Jesus finds us, when he speaks to us. We have been, and we are, in fact, right where they were. Jesus invites us to join him, to walk with him, and after we truly hear that invitation nothing is the same for us either, ever again.

It is no small thing or easy thing, of course, to hear and to follow Jesus. It wasn’t for these four. Look again at the words of the sermon hymn. “The peace of God—it is not peace, but strife. Opposition, persecution, even violent and painful death. Our missionary partner and friend Tammy Smith Firestone has been writing this week with great concern about the safety of Christians in all that’s going on in Bolivia, and in China, and in East Africa, and on and on.

As Phil Wainwright reminded us in his sermon at Evensong last Sunday after we had heard Dean read the first 16 verses of the First Letter of Peter, the world around us in the 21st century is growing wearier and wearier in its relationship with Jesus followers, just as it was growing wearier and wearier of those Christians in the Roman province of Asia in the later first century. The strong currents of culture are felt differently in different times and different places, but everywhere and always they want to have nothing to do with Christ. And it is our culture, after all, that we’re talking about — so the battle is not just out there.  But negotiating what’s going on inside, the devices and desires of our own hearts.

So we hang in there more or less, as best we can. Perhaps it is helpful to remember that Andrew and Peter and James and John didn’t go out looking for Jesus. They didn’t submit applications to join his organization.  He came looking for them, and when he found them, he spoke first.

From our point of view, it doesn’t always seem to work well — this Church of his. It actually hardly ever seems to work very well by the metrics we know how to use. And we are tempted to think that perhaps it would work a lot better if it had better people in it — or better leaders anyway.  But that’s above our pay grade.

The reminder this morning in Matthew 4, that he’s the one who is putting this whole thing together.  Jesus. For better or worse, we are shaped according to his intention.  He’s the recruiting officer.

Look around this morning. This is his place. He builds it, guides it, governs it. Whatever is beautiful here is beautiful because he made it that way. Whatever strikes us as a little odd or uncomfortable — don’t talk to me about it, talk to him. This is his place; these are his people. Brought into life and sustained in hope day by day by the means of grace, his Word and sacraments. He himself has made us, and not we ourselves. And again, to say this morning, the quirky but always somehow lovable Highland Park Zoo.

Like that Good Shepherd we read about earlier this year in Luke 15, he looks for us until he finds us, lifts us up onto his shoulders, and carries us home.  He brought us here today. He builds his Church. He blesses us, and then sometimes he chastises us when we stray. He urges us forward; he tugs on the reins.  And around here he’s been doing all that for 182 years and counting. All the ups and downs, all the twists and turns.

In the end I think just to say, all there is to say, is — what a privilege it is, what am amazing privilege it has been for me to be a part of it. I hope you have felt that way too, and will continue to feel that way. So if this may be the last time I stand with you in this pulpit on a Sunday morning, and with great affection for you, I would just like to be sure to wrap things up by saying a good word about our sponsor. About the one who makes all this possible.

The one whose word is before us every Sunday morning inscribed on this great Rood Beam, John 12:32.  And I if I be lifted up will draw all men unto me.

The heart of this St. Andrew’s Day then always then simply the reminder that as Jesus sought out those first disciples by the Sea of Galilee, so he is also seeking us out and inviting us into relationship with him.  From his Cross, drawing us to himself. So this morning, as a formal parting word, I would commend Jesus to you. If you don’t know him, or perhaps if you think you don’t know him as well as you’d like to, I encourage you to get acquainted, and to get to know him better and better. Not because it’s easy, but because he is true. Because he is alive and at the right hand of the Father.  ecause he will come again.   He is the generous source of all mercy and all grace. Forgiving our sin, taking it on himself, speaking on our behalf from his cross before the judgment seat of God.

I commend Jesus to you. Every word in the Bible is about him, and every word of the Bible is his word for us, given to us precisely for this purpose, as a great place, as the one great place to meet him, to begin that friendship, to build up his church.  Beginning right here in Highland Park, and to the ends of the earth.

I don’t know what’s next for me. Bishop McConnell gets a misty, faraway look in his eyes when the topic has come up with me — but to this point anyway he hasn’t talked about any specific ideas. I sure don’t know what’s next for you — what’s next for St. Andrew’s — except that if you all continue to be part of the story here it will certainly be a great story. I know that much, for sure.

Probably for me, for you, for his Church, for all of us in every corner of our lives there will be times of satisfaction and enjoyment, times of pain and loss and disappointment, good days and bad days. We may have many years in front of us, or maybe not. He’ll figure it out. “A time to plant and a time to uproot; a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time for mourning and a time for dancing.” For everything a season.

May Jesus be the constant for you in season and out of season — by your side, in your mind, in your heart. He came a long way to find you.

“And I if I be lifted up will draw all men unto me,” which is how the Church is built up. One of us at a time, and a great multitude that no man can number. Hear him speak those words to us in our prayers this morning and every day, as we pray for ourselves and for one another and for the future life and ministry of St. Andrew’s Church. And let him, let Jesus, say these words to you personally, in your mind and in your heart.

I commend Jesus to you. It’s really just the one thing, for sure it is the one and only important thing, I have ever had to say. I hope even in a long and meandering sermon, it is a message that is short and sweet:

Let us pray:  Almighty God, whose will it is to be glorified in your saints, and who raised up your servant Andrew to be a light in the world: Shine, we pray, in our hearts, that we also in our generation may show forth your praise, who called us out of darkness into your marvelous light; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

The Rev. Bruce Robison is a retired priest of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. He served for many years as rector of St. Andrew’s, Highland Park, Pittsburgh, where this sermon was preached on his final Sunday.

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