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The Sabbath Isn’t About Religion – It’s About Liberation

Seeds blowing off a dandelion

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 8/25/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Jeremiah 1:4-10; Isaiah 58:9b-14; Luke 13:10-17. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

Listen to the Sermon Now

Jesus was in the synagogue, teaching. And just then, a woman appeared. A woman who had suffered from a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was deformed and hunched. Unable to stand up straight.

When Jesus saw her, he called her over – called her right to the front, where he was teaching. And he said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Then he laid hands on her, and immediately the woman stood up straight. And she began praising God.

Eighteen years, she had been waiting for this. Eighteen years of pain and disability. Eighteen years of wondering why God allowed her to be afflicted in this way. Eighteen years of believing that she would never be freed from this oppressive spirit.

But even as the woman was still speaking her praises, glorifying God in the presence of everyone there in the synagogue, the pastor had something to say.

The pastor had something to say. Because this woman’s healing didn’t happen in the right way. This act of liberation didn’t take place according to the rules. This blessing that Jesus performed, this laying on of hands and the healing that followed – in the mind of the pastor of this synagogue, that was work. And this was the sabbath, a day on which no work is to be performed.

So the pastor had something to say. But he didn’t say it to Jesus. He didn’t directly confront the man who had got him so upset, so indignant. No, it says that he turned to the crowd, and kept saying to them, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”

Didn’t you get the memo, brothers and sisters? This is not ‘Nam – there are rules. You don’t just come to the synagogue any day you please, asking for God to heal you. The sabbath is for rest, not for being healed. The sabbath is for worship, not for liberation. The sabbath is for the teaching of the law, not for practicing it!

It’s just like the Torah says, in the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter five. You might have heard of it. The Ten Commandments? Where God says: 

Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.

This is a day of rest!, says the pastor to his flock. Obey the word of God! Follow the rules, just like Moses taught you! Come some other day to be healed, not on the sabbath. Everything in good order!

But Jesus was not having it. This pastor may not have wanted to speak directly to Jesus, but Jesus was just fine confronting him in his own synagogue. And this is one of those places in the Bible where, I do believe it’s fair to say, Jesus was angry. He says: 

You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?

If your livestock deserve to be watered on the sabbath day, surely it’s OK for God to do a little healing. A little blessing. A little liberating of those who are in bondage, under the weight of satan’s yoke. Isn’t it?

Because you see, Jesus remembered the whole passage. Jesus remembered the whole text from the Book of Deuteronomy. Jesus remembered the next verse, where it says:

Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

Remember that you were in bondage in the land of Egypt. Remember that the Lord your God brought you out from there with his mighty hand. Remember what God has done for you, how he has healed you and set you free.

And therefore.

Therefore. Because he has set you free. Because he has liberated you from Satan’s yoke. Because he has delivered you from physical and spiritual affliction. Therefore.

Therefore, the Lord your God has commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

God has commanded you to keep the sabbath day as a day of rest, so that everyone may experience that liberation. Your sons and your daughters. Your male and female slaves. The resident aliens living among you. Even for the livestock! God has liberated you from slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt. He has liberated you from bondage to violence, greed, and empire. Therefore, let all experience that rest and peace, that freedom and wholeness that comes from God our liberator.

In our reading from Isaiah this morning, we hear a little bit of this “therefore.” We hear from Isaiah what the God of Abraham considers to be true religion. We hear about the fast, the sabbath that the Lord requires. What is it? “To let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.” The Lord God of Israel says:

If you remove the yoke from among you. If you feed the hungry. If you heal the afflicted. If you cease to speak evil and stop pointing fingers at your neighbor. If you loose the bonds of injustice and release the prisoners from their chains. If you turn your eyes away from yourself and see the needs of others, the Lord will guide you continually. He will satisfy your needs. He will restore you and heal the city where you live. He will make you whole.

This is the sabbath of Isaiah, the sabbath of the Lord God of Israel. He says:

If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day… If you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs… I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

This is the sabbath of Isaiah, the sabbath of Jesus – when we turn from ourselves, from our own pursuits and personal interests, and seek instead the good of those around us. The good of the weakest, the poorest, the most marginal. When we look to the needs of others, when we love our neighbors as ourselves – that is the sabbath of God. There’s no condemnation on this sabbath, only healing.

Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from bondage on the sabbath day?

The sabbath day is a day of Exodus. The day of rest is a day of liberation. From overwork. From anxiety. From trauma. From oppression. It’s liberation from the bondage of our own self-centeredness. It’s the freedom the comes when we become channels of God’s love for others. We’re set free. So free that we forget our sins – and so does God.

And when Jesus said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

We should rejoice, too. Because we need this liberation. We need to be freed from the kind of religion that is more about our own righteousness than about God’s power. We need to be released from the crippling spirit of fear and self-centeredness. The anxiety that keeps us from looking outward with love and compassion to the people around us.

We need God to heal us from a worldview where we worry ourselves to death about keeping score and feeling pure. By receiving the word of Jesus, of Isaiah, of Moses, God invites us to live in peace with those around us. To engage the world with love.

In the words of the prophet Isaiah:

Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,

and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,

and your healing shall spring up quickly;

your vindicator shall go before you,

the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;

you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

Related Posts:

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The Kingdom Is Yours – Are You Too Afraid to Receive It?

The Kingdom Is Yours - Are You Too Afraid to Receive It?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 8/11/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

Listen to the Sermon Now

I like to think of myself as being a fearless person. Someone brave. A person who charts my own course and doesn’t let anything or anyone dominate me.

But that’s not true. The truth is, I’m deeply afraid. I’m frightened by the state of our country – where authoritarianism is gaining strength in our government and white nationalist terrorism is on the rise. I’m frightened by the condition of our planet, which is being transformed by climate change, plastic-clogged oceans, and the destruction of vital bioregions, like the Amazon rainforest.

I’m frightened by a society that seems to have no use for God – a culture where life is cheapened and human beings are viewed as producers and consumers rather than as children of God. A land full of non-religious people who worship at the altar of science and progress on the one hand, and deeply religious people who don’t seem to have any interest in loving their neighbors or following Jesus in any meaningful way. These things disturb and frighten me.

I also get scared in all the usual ways. I worry about whether my job will be stable. About whether my co-workers like me. About whether I’m being a good pastor, and if I’m being faithful to what God is calling me to. I want to be liked. I want to be respected. I want to contribute and have my contribution appreciated.

I worry about money. A lot. It’s hard, living in this society, not to relate to money as the all-important thing. It’s what makes the world go ‘round. It’s what pays the bills. Its presence or absence in my bank account is the difference between living in a house and living on the street. So even though our family has more than enough right now, I still worry. Because I don’t know what might happen tomorrow.

Like I said, I prefer to think of myself as a brave person. But I’m obviously not. Fear permeates so many facets of my life, my thought, the ways I interact with the people around me.

So I need this scripture this morning. I need to hear Jesus when he says to me, to all of us gathered here as his disciples, he says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.”

Do not be afraid. Our Father has been pleased to give us the kingdom.

What is a kingdom? It’s a relationship of authority. To be part of a kingdom means to have a king, a sovereign, someone in charge. In our case, as followers of Jesus, that sovereign is God. The one who created the universe. The Father who loves as his own children.

We don’t need to be afraid, because our Father is the king. Our Father is in control. Our Father is trustworthy. He created the universe. He sustains it. And he is qualified to keep his promises.

Do not be afraid. Our Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.

But just like any gift, this kingdom that is being given to us requires a response. You can’t receive a gift without reaching out your hands to take hold of it. So what does it look like to do that, what does Jesus tell us we need to do to receive this gift of the kingdom?

Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Oh, is that all? OK, no biggie… Wait.

What’s Jesus saying here? Why in the world would accepting the kingdom of God mean selling our possessions and giving to the poor? That’s terrifying. That’s crazy. Why would God ask us to make ourselves so vulnerable?

When Jesus says, do not be afraid, this is what he means. Do not be afraid of the world and its power. Do not be afraid of surrendering your money. Do not be afraid of what this world threatens you with, the fear that keeps you from stepping out of line.

Do not be afraid, little flock. Put your full trust in God. Throw all your eggs into one basked – God’s kingdom. Renounce your anxiety about the economic systems and social hierarchy of this world. Free your mind, and become sons and daughters of God. Become citizens of the kingdom.

Religious people like us often like to imagine that we can have it both ways. That we can be a part of God’s kingdom while still playing by the rules of the kingdoms of this world. That we can keep a foot in both camps – enjoying our heavenly reward, while also getting what’s ours according to the imperial economy.

That’s what Isaiah was dealing with during his ministry, just before the Babylonians smashed Jerusalem and carried Israel off into captivity. The people of Israel thought they were doing what God required of them. They performed all the sacrifices, and then some. Isaiah says that the people of Israel were “trampling” the courts of the Temple in Jerusalem, bringing in so many whole burnt offerings that the priests could barely manage it. The Israelites had gotten very good at the religion business.

Of course God loves us!, said the rulers of Israel. Of course he approves of our society. Just look at how many bulls and goats we’ve sacrificed on the altar! Listen to all the songs of worship we’re performing! Look at how many people have come to pay homage to the God of Israel!

But, Isaiah says, God isn’t impressed. Israel thought they could have it both ways, paying a tithe to God while propping up an economy that abused the poor, the weak, the widow, the fatherless. God’s not interested in this kind of prayer and praise, divorced from justice and compassion. He says,

Stop bringing meaningless offerings!

Your incense is detestable to me.

New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations —

I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.

Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals

I hate with all my being.

They have become a burden to me;

I am weary of bearing them.

When you spread out your hands in prayer,

I hide my eyes from you;

even when you offer many prayers,

I am not listening.

Your hands are full of blood!

Isaiah speaks to a people who thought they could have it both ways. They showed up to the Temple and performed all of their religious obligations. But then they returned home and nothing changed. The violence, the fraud, the selfishness. Isaiah spoke to a people who came to visit the kingdom of God, but maintained their citizenship in the kingdoms of this world.

Like Isaiah before him, Jesus is here to announce that there is no dual citizenship in the kingdom of God. There can’t be any compromise with the values and economies of this world. We have to choose. And choosing means a hard break. It means selling our possessions and giving to the poor. It means surrendering our fear of this world and allowing our only fear to be that of failing to live as children of God.

If that message scares you as much as it scares me, we’re still in chains. If the idea of surrendering the safety and security that our economic system and political system offers us, if that’s intimidating to you, it means we still haven’t quite turned in our passports to get a new citizenship in the kingdom of God.

But if we are ready to take that step. If we are willing to become a community that truly abandons everything to walk with Jesus. If we become the faithful servants who are up and awake when the master comes home at four in the morning, there is an amazing reward waiting for us. The gift of the kingdom is peace, love, and unshakable security. As the author of Hebrews says, it is a “city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

We have a choice to make, and the price is steep in the terms that this world understands. But the reward for choosing to become citizens of the kingdom of God is commensurate with the price we pay.

Here’s what Jesus says about how the Father will treat those who wait for him. He says, 

It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them.

Did you catch it? When I read through this parable the first several times, I kept missing it. The real surprise and joy of this passage. Reading it through once, twice, three times – I thought that the passage said that the servants who were waiting up for the master would dress themselves to serve. I assumed that the master, when he showed up in the middle of the night, coming back from a wedding party – I assumed that the servants would wait on him.

But that’s not what the text says. When the kingdom of God comes, the master will dress himself up to serve, while the servants recline at table.

That’s what the kingdom of God is like. Leaders become servants. The weak are lifted up. And Jesus – the ultimate leader – endures the cross so that we can join him at the wedding feast.

The kingdom of God isn’t just about surrendering our wealth; we give up our status, too. Following in the way of Jesus, we become servants, just like he is.

This is the way of liberation. This is freedom from fear. This is adoption as sons and daughters of God, the kingdom that Jesus promises.

Do you want that? Do you want to be truly free from fear? To become a child of God? What does it look like for us to walk that path together?

One thing is for sure: We can’t wait. Time is of the essence. Because we don’t know when the master will arrive. In the words of Jesus,

…Understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

Are we ready? When the master comes, will he find us awake? If not, what needs to change in our life together so that we will be prepared?

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Something Is Shaking Loose – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #65

Dear friends,

I’ve been getting around this summer. I’ve done almost as much traveling in the last few months as I had in the whole year before that. So far this summer, I’ve taken multiple trips to Detroit, Indiana and Philadelphia. Reconnecting with my friends and fellow workers throughout the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, I’ve felt more plugged into the life of the whole body. As I grow in my role as a released minister with our geographically dispersed fellowship, I am both blessed and challenged by the work of nurturing our fledgling communities and ministries.

Friends of Jesus Fellowship is in a state of flux right now. It feels like all of our workers in all of our local and virtual sites are feeling something similar. Something is shaking loose. There is a new direction emerging, but it’s still not clear exactly where we’re headed. This can feel scary; we’ve invested so much work into the communities as we know them today. But we are also feeling a sense of divine accompaniment, trusting that Christ Jesus is walking with us, guiding us even when we can’t see the way in front of us. We would invite your prayers for our collective sense of clarity as a fellowship, and for the Holy Spirit to enliven and guide each of our local communities.

Here in Friends of Jesus – DC Metro Area, we’re experimenting with a variety of ways of being community together. Through cookouts, worship, service projects and spiritual exploration through art, we’ve tried a lot of different ways of engaging with God together. It’s still not totally clear what things will look like for us in the fall, but we have a sense of being scattered across our urban region. Christ is inviting us to re-focus on the simple, patient work of making disciples. Beyond all strategies and programs, this work of transformation and growth is our primary calling.

Even as Friends of Jesus is experiencing a sense of creative mystery, I’ve personally been experiencing a lot of growth in my understanding of the work I’m called to. A part of that has been in my professional life as Web & Communications Specialist for Friends United Meeting. This summer, I’ve been spending a lot more time out at the North American FUM office in Indiana, which has helped to deepen my sense of purpose and connection with this international association of Quakers.

I’m growing in my understanding that there is vitally important work for me to do as part of the FUM communications team, and I’m looking forward to the months ahead as we undertake a comprehensive campaign to strengthen the organization. Together, I believe that we can energize, equip and connect Friends across the planet, and – near and dear to my heart – here in our North American context.

Here are some ways that you can be praying in the coming month:

  • That God would energize and inspire Friends of Jesus – DC Metro Area to take risks and find companions in the way as we seek to make disciples in our local context.
  • That the Friends of Jesus Fellowship as a whole would feel Christ’s power and seek his guidance in becoming the beautiful bride that he is calling us to be. Let the Holy Spirit raise up new disciple-makers in each of our communities, teaching us to embody and share the good news.
  • That Friends United Meeting would be strengthened, both as an organization and as a worldwide body of dozens of yearly meetings from California to Cuba, Nairobi to New York. May God provide the funds, the staff, and above all the spiritual grounding that Friends United Meeting needs to fulfill its mission: energizing, equipping and connecting fellowships in the name of Jesus Christ.
  • That I would find the support and encouragement I need to sustain the work that God has called me to. May my family of prayer supporters, financial backers and ministry partners continue to grow through the unmistakable power of Jesus.

Thank you for your ongoing prayers, encouragement and love.

Grace and peace in the Lord Jesus,

Micah

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Sacrificing Isaac

[God said to Abraham], “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” Genesis 22:2

I have a hard time imagining what Abraham must have felt when God told him to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. The biblical text simply says that he responded with obedience, taking Isaac to the mountains and offering him up to the Lord. But between those terse lines of Torah dwells all the depth of human emotion that accompany the loss of that which is most dear in life. Left unspoken is the dreadful courage it must have taken to say under such circumstances, thy will be done.

The story of Abraham and Isaac is an archetype of total surrender to God. Isaac meant the world to Abraham. He represented God’s past faithfulness: his solemn promise to be with Abraham and make his family a great nation. Isaac was the future: the bearer of the promise, the father of generations to come.

Perhaps most important of all, this young boy was infinitely precious in that present moment. Abraham loved Isaac as only a father can love his son. When Abraham said yes to God, he said no to all his hopes, dreams and loves. He gave up everything for the sake of obedience.

We know now, of course, that God did not ultimately require Abraham to offer up his son as a burnt offering on the mountainside. But Abraham had no idea. He chose to be obedient, expecting that it really would mean the loss of Isaac. If God hadn’t stayed his hand, he would have gone through with it.

What is the purpose of this story? Why is this gut-wrenching incident so central to the faith of billions? What is the lesson here?

This story is meant to be shocking. Why in the world would God ask a father to kill his own child? It simply blows my mind that God would even request such a thing. Yet even as I find myself bewildered by the horror of the story, I am invited to imagine myself in Abraham’s place. What are those things that seem impossible to surrender to God? Where am I holding back? Who or what is my Isaac?

Take Up The Cross Daily

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Mark 9:34

There is nothing glorious about suffering. I may intellectually recognize its importance as part of my journey with Jesus, but the moment that I really face suffering is shocking. All my pious words go out the window. The pain is immediate; it really hurts. The reality of the cross knocks the wind out of my ideals. The experience of the cross feels neither holy nor redeeming.

I wonder if Jesus expected the cross to be so heavy. Did Jesus imagine beforehand how real his pain would be? Could he have known what the nails would feel like in his hands and feet? Did he anticipate what it would be like to thirst so intensely – not just for water, but for God?

Jesus went to the cross defenseless, unprepared for what lay before him; he yielded to the will of his Father. He chose to drink this cup. For the sake of love, he would endure every form of agony: most terribly, the felt absence of God’s presence.

What does this mean for me, as a modern-day person who desires to follow in the way of Jesus? Do I really know what I’m asking when I say I want to drink his cup? Am I being realistic about what it truly means to follow Jesus? Am I ready to take up my cross daily?

Gathered As In A Net

The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net, and his heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds to land. […] And from that day forward, our hearts were knit unto the Lord and one unto another in true and fervent love… Francis Howgill (1618-1669)

When Jesus called his first disciples, he recruited some of them from among the fishermen who made their living on the Sea of Galilee. He asked a few of these fishermen to follow him, promising to change their vocation forever. Rather than inheriting the family fishing business, they would become fishers of people.

When I first heard the story of Jesus calling the fishermen, I assumed that ancient Palestinian people fished in the same way that I do. I imagined these men sitting on their boats all day, with poles and string, hooks and lures in hand, catching individual fish and tossing them into a bucket. When I first heard the story where Jesus invites Simon and Andrew to fish for people, it sounded like a leisurely day of sport fishing.

I now realize that the first disciples weren’t fishing as a hobby. They didn’t spend their days with poles and hooks, capturing individual fish. Instead, they used wide nets in an attempt to draw large numbers of fish out of the depths. Simon and Andrew were not out catching fish one by one; they sought to bring many hundreds into their boats with one pull of the net.

The early Quaker movement described the work of the Holy Spirit as this kind of dragnet. They experienced being gathered together as in a net, united in God’s power as a people of God. Just as Jesus had called his disciples into an organic community that became the early church, Friends in the 1650s found themselves being gathered by the resurrected Jesus in their midst.

Having had this experience, these first Quakers also became fishers of people. They went into all the world, gathering seekers into communities where they could experience the unity and power of the Holy Spirit – the fullness of life in the body of Christ.

Living as we do in a society that is so focused on individual experience and transformation, how do we make sense of the biblical model of salvation in community? How would our lives be different if we lived as an organic whole – the body of Christ – rather than as individual believers with our fishing poles?

What implications would this way of living as a gathered people have on the way we reach out to the world with the love of the gospel? How might we participate in ministry that looks more like a drag net than fly fishing? What would it mean for us to be able to say that our hearts were knit unto the Lord and one unto another in true and fervent love?

 

Faithfully Effective


I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.
John 15:5

There is a phrase that I’ve heard, probably hundreds of times in conversations with folks in the Quaker community: We are called to be faithful, not effective. Some version of this statement is frequently invoked after discussing the difficulties that we face in seeking to live out the kingdom of God in a fallen world. At its best, the phrase is recognition that each of us can only control our own choices, and that we ultimately must surrender outcomes to God.

For a long time, though, I’ve struggled with the idea that faithfulness is somehow separate from and more important than effectiveness. How can these two be separated? Surely we worship a God who is powerful enough to produce practical effectiveness from our faith!

Which is better, love or justice? What is more essential, works or faith? Are we called to be faithful, or effective? To each of these questions the Spirit answers with a resounding YES! The God of Abraham unites love and justice an inseparable bond. The Lord Jesus calls us to demonstrate our faith through good works. The Holy Spirit gathers us as a people to bear fruit, becoming effective precisely because we are faithful.

Life is mysterious, full of paradoxes that are hard to sit with. It often seems easier to just pick one side of the coin. I’ll do justice, but leave the loving to someone else. Some dedicate their lives to work for justice in the world, with little reference to the gospel foundation of that work. Others pray up a storm and say beautiful words, but act as if it were un-spiritual to measure results. Sometimes faithfulness seems like it might be within reach, but effectiveness is just too hard.

But we go wrong when we try to separate out faith from works, love from justice, faithfulness from effectiveness. God created the universe as a whole – body, mind, and spirit. If we want to experience the abundant life that God created us for, we must embrace this whole. To live as Christ’s body on earth, we’re going to need a whole lot of loving-justice, works of faith, and effective faithfulness.

How does this play out in real life? Have you seen someone living faithfully but ineffectively – or effectively but unfaithfully? What does it look like for works and faith to go together, for love to give birth to the practical work of justice? What would it mean for us to be faithfully effective?