Articles

2020 International Prayer Breakfast Remarks

The Right Reverend Andrew Williams – Bishop to the Anglican Diocese in New England September 15, 2020

INTO THE STORM… Mark 4:35-41

It was a joy to be with so many of you, last year, at the Christmas dinner. It is my great honor to join you for this annual Prayer Breakfast, in this the United Nations’ 75th anniversary year. I stand with the world in giving thanks for, celebrating and saluting your enduring selfless service.

How do you recall the early days of your diplomatic service? Diplomacy on the world stage could never be described as straightforward or without challenge - but looking back – was it just a little bit easier?

I truly believed that the first three years of my ordained ministry were the way it was going to be forever. We had so much fun. Yes - there was the odd piece of tension here and there, but largely, I was given the freedom to come up with wild ideas, which the church, good humoredly entertained and participated in; and the church grew in faith and number. And behold – it was good! At least this is the way I choose to remember it.

My second posting also had its share of wild ideas and a good measure of joy, but I also recall that these blessings were offset with a few more battles. I recall a senior staff meeting where a beleaguered colleague volunteered, “Ministry…it’s a living martyrdom!”

Looking back, I can now see that I was growing into the reality that authentic leadership, the kind of leadership that endeavors to make a significant and lasting difference for the common good - by necessity, is a magnet for pain.

You have audaciously pledged to sustainable development goals that constitute the blueprint for a better and more sustainable future for all. You have courageously covenanted to face head on the greatest global challenges, including poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice. You have committed to pursue a global partnership, in such a way, that no one gets left behind. But there can be no real progress without change and no change without pain. “Diplomacy…it’s a living martyrdom!”

And along the way, if the challenges to your work were not already significant, it has gotten not a little stormy. In the midst of a global pandemic we are witnessing increased global instability, fear and unrest.

Do you feel like you are rowing against swirling global currents? Attempting to find your way with the wind and rain unceasing and hard pressed against you? And what is perhaps, at first sight, unsettling is that God knew about this storm when he asked you to get into this diplomatic boat and make this trip with Him. 2

I have been in this role for about eighteen months. I am still working out what I need to be doing on a fair day! Let me be candid, when I was signed up, I did not see Global pandemic in the small print!

We are not the first ambassadors for God’s work, who have struggled with this tension. That is the tension of God setting us up to sail into the oncoming storm. Let me read to you again the following account in Mark’s Gospel – chapter 4 verses 35-41.

On that day, when evening had come, He said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took Him with them in the boat, just as He was. And other boats were with Him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And He awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

HOW DID THE DISCIPLES FIND THEMSELVES IN THIS STORM?

Mark 4:1 we read: “Again, He [Jesus] began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about Him, so that He got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land.”

So, Jesus is already in the boat. He has been using it as a pulpit all day to teach the crowd. His voice has been amplified by the natural amphitheater of the bay but now He is exhausted.

From within the boat, some time before He falls asleep, Jesus says: “Let us go across to the other side.” Mark 4:35

The “other side” was the place of the Gentiles. Having ministered exclusively to the Jewish people, this boat trip across the lake, is the very first venture into non-Jewish territory.

THE SEA AS A CHARACTER IN THIS STORY.

“And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling.” Mark 4:37

Biblically, the sea is often portrayed as a symbol of chaos: all that opposes the advance of God’s Kingdom – the advance of God’s great restoration movement of peace and human flourishing. In this account, this movement of God’s peace is about to be extended - to the place of the Gentiles – and the sea rose up to oppose Him.

Jesus is fulfilling the prophecy: to be “a light to enlighten the world.” And He is – taking them with Him. He is leading them into the eye of the storm. 3

Very deliberately Jesus has called us into the boat and taken us with Him into the storm. This has been and continues to be a season of great turbulence that has tested and stretched us beyond the depths of our experience and the breadth of our service.

But if Jesus is any example here, He is showing us that, there will always be resistance when new ground is being taken for peace and human flourishing. Storms are inevitable whenever we push out with God’s agenda and leave the security of the shoreline. When we obediently follow Jesus, into deeper waters, we should expect it to get a little choppy!

HOW COULD JESUS SLEEP?

“But He [Jesus] was in the stern, asleep on the cushion.” Mark 38a

How could Jesus sleep in the middle of the storm? And notice Mark’s little dig at Jesus, “asleep on the cushion…” there is only one cushion on this boat and Jesus is asleep on it!

It had to be that Jesus’ security and peace came from someplace other than the weather. He knew He was safe because all His security and confidence came from the Father.

Of that security and peace, King David could write, “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” Psalm 4:8 A security, an assurance and a profound confidence that it allowed Jesus to lie down in the boat and sleep.

WHAT DID THE DISCIPLES WANT JESUS TO DO?

“And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, [Not Lord!] do you not care that we are perishing?” Mark 4: 38b

If you are a fisherman and your boat is filling with water – what do you do? You BAIL out the boat. They want Jesus to get off His cushion and help them to bail out the boat

Because He is not, they presume He does not care about them!

Isn’t this how it feels when we are in a storm and Jesus is apparently NOT answering our frantic prayers?

In those moments, we might conclude that God does NOT exist or perhaps more often that He simply does not care. C. S. Lewis put it this way: “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not “So there’s no God after all,” but “So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.” 4

WHAT DOES JESUS DO?

He awoke and spoke directly to the storm: “He…rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.” Mark 4:39

The Word that spoke order out of chaos, the living Word that hovered over the face of the waters and said “Let there be light,” the same voice that spoke to the chaos of the waters and spoke into being ocean and dry land…The same voice – now speaks to the fury of the storm.

In the Amplified translation of the Bible we find this moment rendered with the phrase, “Hush!” or “Be muzzled.” And the wind ceased. And there was great calm.

The funny thing is, the disciples are still afraid!! So, Jesus asks them: “[He said to them], “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” Mark 4:40

In other words, “You just wanted me to bail you out of the storm. I want you to know the power of God to carry you through the storm.”

Last summer I met a former Dean of an English Cathedral – a man of great wisdom and experience. I shared with him what the Lord had placed upon my heart for my episcopacy. Like you, I am bound by God to seek lasting change. Like you, I am committed to God’s great cause of the restoration of all things, so that no one should be left behind. After I had finished speaking, there was a moment of silence and then he said, “Bishop Andrew, I will pray for you, in God’s mission…, you are storming the strong man’s castle…you are going after a place from which he derives his power. You need prayer.”

I believe that this Word is for each of you. Together, in a global coalition of peace, sustainability and justice, you are storming the strongholds of injustice, poverty, violence and destruction as carriers of God’s greater restoration movement. This is so much bigger than anything we could do in our own strength. And the only way we can fully participate is to relocate the source of all our security in Him.

A few years ago, I got really sick. I am blessed to be in strong health now but there was a time when it all looked a little bleak. That I was sick came as something of a shock! If I may quote

C. S. Lewis again (all English clergy do!) he wrote, “Surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of man he is. If there are rats in a cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in suddenly.” Let me tell you – there were a lot of rats down there: resentment, pride, impatience, irritableness and a lot of fear. Not a healthy fear or reverence of God – but a fear of inadequacy, a fear of failure, a fear of disappointing people.

I presumed that my fear was all about my weakness, but the Lord graciously helped me discern that my fear was not rooted in my perceived weakness but actually in my pride. In other words, my fear was really much more about my ego than I cared to admit to myself. In bringing this to light, the Lord led me to Isaiah 51:12 where He says, “I, I am He that comforts you; who are you that you are afraid of man who dies, of the son of man who is made like grass?” 5

It struck me as curious that the Lord would say, “Who are you that you are afraid?” If, however, we recognize that fear is so very often a manifestation of our pride then this begins to make a lot more sense.

For the first time I began to see how fear very often seeks to push God aside and take over responsibility for my comfort, care and protection all of which God has said He will faithfully provide. The Lord very emphatically says, “I, I am he that comforts you!” (Isaiah 51:12). And yet fear barges in and tries to take over the role of protector, guide and comforter. It’s as if fear climbs up on God’s throne and presumes to say, “Don’t do that; You could get hurt!” I think for the first time I saw clearly that fear has the most toxic capacity to set limits on our obedience to God. When you think about it, isn’t it often the case that we serve the one we fear?

LET ME OFFER THIS FINAL THOUGHT:

Yes, Jesus led them into the storm – but He went with them. He was never absent – not for a moment.

In my earliest days of ministering in the US I was blessed with a wonderful church, a church filled with so much potential but also a great many challenges. I had arrived to encounter something of a multi-headed cyclone. One night, I sat in despair by the hearth in my living room. The fire had long since grown cold. When I had started praying there had been a few embers, but my prayers had even quenched this diminishing, fragile glow to gray ash! All the flames had long died out.

I was looking at a block of dead, black, ash filled wood – with not the least sign of life.

All hope seemed lost. Hopeless. I said, “Lord – I can’t fix this. You are going to have to do this!”

…and immediately the hearth burst into flame!

In the heat of battle, in the eye of the storm, God looks us right in the eye and levels with us.

And this is what he says: “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).

Let me unpack the unusual force of this statement: Not once in the past 75 years and at no point in the next 75 years and beyond, not ever; never, never, never, in any circumstance whatsoever, will God fail you.

Let me pray for us…

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