William Kamkwamba was born in Dowa, Malawi, and grew up on his family farm. He was a bright child. But in 2001, the year that he moved up from his primary school to a secondary school, extreme famine ruined Malawi. His family couldn’t pay his annual school fees, that was only about 80 dollars. William was forced to drop out of school a few months into his freshman year. For the next five years he was unable to go back to school.
However, rather than accepting his fate, William started borrowing books from a small community library in his former primary school. One of the books was an 8th-grade textbook from the U.S.: Using Energy. The book had wind turbines on its cover. And that picture captured his eyes. Reading the book, he decided to build a windmill to power his home. So he built his first windmill out of junk using a radio motor, a broken bicycle, tractor fan blades and old shock absorber. After hooking the windmill to a car battery for storage, William was able to power four light bulbs.
It was just a beginning of his greater projects. His windmill was later extended to 40 feet to better catch the wind above the trees. He even studied how to use solar power and generated more electricity and served his village to pump clean water, to provide lighting for the six more homes. His windmill project inspired many people, drew visitors from other villages and countries, and made great changes in people’s life. These days, William works with various non-profit organizations and continues to serve underprivileged communities around the world. And this year, a movie based on his story was released by Netflix with the title, “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.” I recommend it if you are interested.
Reading the story, I thought, what we are doing as Christians can be compared to building a windmill like William does. If William finds the power source from the wind, we, Christians find our power source from a different kind of wind, which we call, the wind of the Holy Spirit. We believe, this wind, this life-giving Spirit, has the power to turn on the light of Christ in each person’s life and empower them to love God and love neighbors. But to use this power, we need to do our parts. We need to build our humble windmill. We need to build our church. Then through us, I believe, God surely works for the people around us, for our community. And through our church, the Holy Spirit channels the power of grace to inspire people’s hearts to have faith in Christ, awaken them to follow Jesus, and impassion them to join us to do God’s holy mission.
William’s life could be just another unfortunate life of a secondary school drop-out in a poor town of Malawi. But he didn’t give up. He saw a different possibility. He dreamed of making changes in his village. And he did his part, although it seemed small and insignificant in the beginning. Today’s Epistle lesson also urges each one of us to do our part. “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus…and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching…. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully” (2 Timothy 4:1-2;5). Do your part in God’s mission. Even though your work seems small and insignificant, even though circumstances are not favorable to you, do it with persistence and carry out your ministry fully. Then, what? Then, God will work through you. The Holy Spirit will use our church to empower more people and enlighten many with Christ’s love.
Today is Laity Sunday. This is the day that we celebrate the ministry of all Christians. We embrace our shared vocation, as lay persons and clergy alike, to proclaim and embody the good news of saving love of Jesus Christ. And we reaffirm together the priesthood of all believers, our common call to ministry. As we do, I would like all of us to remember the story of William and his windmill, and faithfully do our own part as we build, nurture, and grow our church together.
When we say our parts, our works, in the Methodist Church, it particularly means two things. They are the works of piety and works of mercy. What are they? Let’s read them together.
Works of Piety
1. Individual Practices: reading, meditating and studying the scriptures, prayer, fasting,
regularly attending worship, healthy living, and sharing our faith with others
2. Communal Practices: regularly share in Holy Communion, Christian conferencing, and Bible study
Works of Mercy
1. Individual Practices: doing good works, visiting and helping the people in hardships, feeding the hungry, and giving generously to the needs of others
2. Communal Practices: seeking justice, ending oppression and discrimination, and addressing the needs of the poor
Methodism, in all its roots, has a long history of celebrating and recognizing the ministry of laity. In the early days of American Methodism, it was the lay members that served and maintained congregations between visits of the circuit riders. And I think this is true even today. I know, every one of you here, is taking part in our church’s ministry and doing your part by praying, by teaching, by dedicating time, treasure and talent, by serving leadership positions, by cleaning and cooking, by feeding the hungry, by joining various mission projects. I also know, every one of you here is the front line of daily ministry at your workplace, in your home, in your relationships, and within your community. For this, I give thanks and praises to God.
Indeed, you are the builders of this church, builders of the windmill through which the wind of the Holy Spirit generates power to change lives and transform the world. Each one of you is holding this church and keeping the doors of this church open until today. Without the ministry of laity, there is no church. Thank you for being faithful to relentlessly seeking hope and tirelessly putting your efforts in reviving our church. Thank you. Your dedications to this church’s ministry truly build the kingdom of God here and now. May God richly bless you as you continue to do your part—it may look small, but it’s not small, because you are building God’s windmill, God’s holy church, by serving one another, by carrying out God’s mission, today and every day. Amen.
What’s your favorite sport? Do you follow any sports? Some say, October is the best month of the year for sports fans. The Major League Baseball playoffs are going on; the National Football League games are in full swing; the National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association officially start their new seasons. So in October, even though I’m a tennis fan, I get to watch many other sports.
Recently, I followed MLB playoffs, especially the LA Dodgers’ games. In the National League Division Series, their opponents were the Washington Nationals. The series tied at 2, and last Wednesday was their final game. The Dodgers were winning until the 7th inning. But the Nationals evened the score in the 8th by back-to-back home runs. So the game went into overtime. And it was in the 10th. The Dodgers bases were all loaded. Then, bam! The Nationals hitter Howie Kendrick hit the grand slam home run. It was the gamechanger. The Nationals won that game and so the series.
Why do we love sports? It’s because there’s a drama like this, a dramatic win. Just one pitch, just one hit, becomes the gamechanger that turns everything upside down. Because we can’t tell exactly at which moment this drama would happen, we continue to watch games cheering and hoping that our team may dramatically win. There should be a winning drama to take place—not a losing game. No other possibility than happy ending. So, even when our team is actually losing, we keep watching, waiting for a gamechanger.
In today’s Hebrew Bible reading, there’s a group of people who are yearning for a dramatic win. I’m not talking about any sports here. But I’m talking about the so-called game of life. In this serious game, they are losing a big time. Who are they? They are the people of Israel. They are not in Jerusalem now but in Babylon, in their exile. What happened? In 587 BCE, Babylonia destroyed Jerusalem, held many people hostage, and brought them to Babylon. In Babylon, they are miserable. They don’t understand why their enemy is winning all the time. They want God to listen to their cries and do something for them. They want God to liberate them from this captivity. Yes, for them, only God can be their gamechanger and the author of their winning drama.
Right then, to the people of Israel, God sends words through the Prophet Jeremiah. They feel like heaven breaks open and a ray of sunlight shines upon them. “Yes, that’s it! Who’s our God? Don’t you know, our God sent Moses and released the Hebrew slaves, our ancestors, from the harsh rule of Egypt? Now it’s our turn!” They expect to win everything back. But the word of God totally goes against their expectations. It begins with a bummer. “Build houses and live in them” (Jeremiah 29:5). “What? Are you kidding me?” I’m so sure that the people of Israel couldn’t believe what they just heard. There’s no gamechanger, no drama as such. The rest of the letter says, in short, “Suck it up!” Live your life fully in Babylon; embrace your situation but still do believe in God’s promise of salvation; God’s time is coming… I feel so sorry for them.
In your game of life, are you winning or losing? Like the people of Israel, for sure, we all want our life to be a winning drama—not a losing game. We all want our God to be our gamechanger and do something dramatic for us right now. But it’s not happening. Then, what can we do? When our life goes into a losing side, when we constantly losing our small battles in our daily life—lose our time and money, lose our chances, lose people we love, lose our hopes and dreams, lose our mind, lose our ways, and even lose our hairs…what should we do to write over our drama from a losing one into a winning one?
Let us look at Jesus in today’s Gospel story. His life doesn’t seem like a winning game either. His background? His people were hardly the best. He spent his early years in the poor town of Nazareth. He was a Jew and a carpenter, in Judea—one of the helpless colonies of the Roman Empire. What about current situation? The religious and political authorities and even his neighbors in his hometown are very often hostile to him and never supportive of his ministry. And today, he heals ten lepers, but one, only one of them, comes back and asks for salvation. Jesus asks, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?” (Luke 17:17) Jesus lost nine. Moreover, this one person is a Samaritan, a foreigner, hated by the Jews. It means, Jesus’ own people didn’t appreciate his ministry. It looks like he is losing the game. But did he? Did he actually lose it?
Faithful friends in Christ, if we say life is like a sports game, please know this: we, believers in God, play it in a totally different way than others. Or course, there can be times we lose. There can be times we struggle. But one thing for sure, we play this game on the promise of victory. What we need to do is to believe the promise and live as if we already won the game. This promise has been fulfilled. In history, the people of Israel got released, returned to Jerusalem, rebuilt their temple and worshipped God. And Jesus? The one Samaritan leper was just a beginning. He widened his scope of salvation to all the people on earth. Jesus revealed God’s winning drama through his death and resurrection. Jesus changed the game of life for all of us by making the cross, a sign of total defeat, into a symbol of everlasting victory over the world, over sin and death.
Yes, the victory has already been won. And God promises us this victory through Jesus our Lord. Thanks be to God! So again, what we need to do is to believe the promise and live as if we already won, as if we are writing our winning drama with Jesus each and every day. How? By living out our winning faith. We can pray like Jesus, even when our situation disheartens us. We can love and forgive like Jesus, even when people are not nice to us. We can willingly help others in need like Jesus, even when we are also in need of help. We can forge God’s kingdom in mission and fellowship like Jesus, even when we are busy and tired. We can shine the light of hope upon others like Jesus, even when we only see darkness around us. Yes, we can. We can write our winning drama with Jesus who has won the victory for us.
Last Wednesday, I don’t think the Washington Nationals won because of the grand slam home run. I don’t think that was the only gamechanger. Until the 10th inning, they were building up for their win with persistence. With every swing, every catch, every pitch, they were making the game turn around. Like them, we should also persist in living out our winning faith in our daily life. Even when we find ourselves in Babylon, in captivity, in unfavorable circumstances, on a losing side, our game of life, our battle, isn’t over. So, until the end of the game, let us be faithful to the promise of victory in Jesus, and write our winning drama with him. The victory has been won, says our Lord. And all God’s people say, amen.
 According to “The Bleacher Report” (https://bleacherreport.com/articles/1094743-ranking-the-best-months-of-the-year-for-sports-fans).
Let me ask you a question, “Do you think that you mostly underestimate your abilities or overestimate your abilities?” Personally, I think, I usually underestimate myself. Facing a challenging task, I mostly doubt myself first and worry, “Can I really do that? Am I really able?” So, I’m sometimes a little jealous of my friends who are full of self-confidence and assert, “Sure, I can do that! No problem!” How about you? What type of person are you? Let’s raise our hands. Underestimating? Overestimating? Both at the same time? Not sure how you are? Well…no matter how you are, you are welcome here!
Anyway, we assume that underestimation and overestimation of oneself are two totally different habits of mind. But psychologically speaking, they are the same. How come? It’s because they are the same kind of psychological issue called, “cognitive bias.” This is a systematic error in our thinking that affects our decisions and judgments, including our self-assessment and self-awareness. And because we are not perfect human beings, we all have this cognitive bias to a certain degree.
This morning, the reason that I bring up this issue of underestimation and overestimation of oneself is that they are deeply related not only to our mental health but also to our faith and Christian life. Yes, to have honest self-assessment and self-awareness and to know who we truly are, is quite critical in our relationship with God as well as on our journey of faith.
And interestingly, in today’s Gospel story, it looks like Jesus is trying to correct the cognitive bias of his disciples. In the story, the disciples ask Jesus, “Increase our faith!” Why do they ask such a thing? The reason is quite simple if we understand their situation. Now, the disciples are on their way to Jerusalem with Jesus. Their journey is almost reaching toward the end, and Jesus is about to enter into his final days on earth. On their way, Jesus already told them a couple of times about his impending suffering and death on the cross. That is so overwhelming. They don’t know how to handle this upcoming crisis. They are not ready. And they are not confident enough to continue Jesus’ ministry after he’s gone. The unforeseen future, the uncertain situation, their daunting tasks, their humble social status, their inner doubts…all these factors surround them, press them, and belittle them to “underestimate” themselves.
To those intimidated disciples, Jesus replies, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (Luke 17:6). Here, we should carefully listen to Jesus. Jesus is not blaming them for their lack of faith at all. He’s not judging them. Jesus is not assuming that they don’t have enough faith. But rather, Jesus is assuring them that they do have faith and it has a huge impact because even through their small faith, God can do amazing things. In short, Jesus means, “Do not underestimate yourself. Remember, you have faith. And this faith is the access to the power of God that is able to do all things through you.” What a wonderful encouragement it is!
But right after this uplifting and promising message, Jesus adds a little bizarre lesson that seems a little unnecessary. Here, he even uses a slave-and-master analogy that bothers our 21st century ears. Jesus tells that no master rewards their servants or thanks them for doing what they are assigned to do. So when the disciples have done all that they were ordered to do, they just have to say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!” (Luke 17:7-10) Why does Jesus say such bold words? I think Jesus’ point is this: “You know you have faith. But do not overestimate yourself. Remember, your faith leads you to be a servant.” With your faith, what do you want to do? Perform wonders and miracles? Wield power and authority? Jesus tells us, “Please make sure. Having faith means to be a servant of God, to surrender your will and make God’s will be done in you, to follow God’s commandment and humbly serve others.”
Today, Jesus points out our cognitive bias. Do not underestimate yourself. Remember, you have faith. But at the same time, do not overestimate yourself either. Remember, your faith leads you to be a servant. Know who you truly are.
I believe this is such a fruitful message that Jesus gives us today on this World Communion Sunday. Yes, we shouldn’t underestimate ourselves. We have faith in Jesus Christ. This precious faith gives us the access to God’s power that works among us right now. It’s evident. Look around. God unites us as sisters and brothers overcoming any human-made barriers and walls. In spite of different colors, different cultures, different backgrounds, we are here together in one faith. On a Sunday, on this most segregated day in the United States, on this day when blacks go to black churches and whites go to white churches, here, right now, can you witness that our small mustard seed faith is changing a little corner of the world? Let us not think that we have nothing special. Let us not underestimate ourselves because, through our faith, God can do amazing things.
But at the same time, we shouldn’t overestimate ourselves. We shouldn’t think that “we” are good and able enough to do something by ourselves. But our faith is not about us, not about our power or our will. It’s about the power and will of the Lord. This faith calls us to be servants, to be the hands and feet of Christ. What does the Lord require of us? Love God with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our strength, and with all our minds, and love our neighbor as ourselves. Share the table of communion with all the people in remembrance of Jesus who died for us all and broke down the dividing walls. Share God’s love and serve one another to build a kingdom of God, even though there’s no visible or material reward.
Today we are celebrating World Communion Sunday. The faithful servants in every corner of the world come to the Lord’s Table, and we, together, remember who we truly are and who our Lord truly is. Without underestimating ourselves, let us remember our mustard seed faith. This faith is the access to our God who is able to do all things through us. And without overestimating ourselves, let us remember our servanthood. We are called to make God’s will be done in this world by serving one another like Jesus served us. Faithful servants of the Lord, let us be confident for we have precious faith that leads us into the new life. And let us be humble at the same time as we do what we ought to do. May our Lord, who became a servant for us first, lift us up and use us for his mission today and on, always. Amen.
Do you believe that God treats everyone equally? Does God create us to be equal, the same? I’m quite sure, our God does not. Look at the emerging California homeless crisis. I heard, homeless population in Los Angeles is reaching sixty thousand this year, mainly because of skyrocketing rent and lack of affordable housings. In Los Angeles, in this city of stars, the city famous for its rich towns and gated communities, this crisis is happening. How about New York City? Annual American Community Survey shows, among the 30 most populous US cities, New York tops in the inequality between the superrich and the extreme poor. And we don’t have to go too far. Look at the children in our church, Amelia, Avery, Jayden, Benjamin, Noah…and think about the children in refugee camps, detention centers, children’s hospitals, and orphanages. Do you still believe that our God is equal to everyone? Well, it’s hard to believe that.
Since the beginning of the world, although in varying degrees, social inequality and economic discrepancy have been unchanging reality of the world. There have been always people like the rich man and people like Lazarus in today’s Gospel story. Yes, Jesus somehow reveals us this unquestionable reality of the world in his story. And what’s more interesting is that he shows us, there’s inequality even in the afterlife between the saved and the condemned.
Let’s look into the story. It goes like a play with three acts. The first act: The Gate. The rich man lives inside the gate of his house, dresses himself in purple and fine linen, and feasts sumptuously every day. In contrast, poor Lazarus lives outside the gate. His famished body is nothing but skin and bones and covered with sores. He fills his hunger with what falls from the rich man’s table. The second act: The Chasm. This act portrays the reversal of their situation in the afterlife. Between the chasm, Lazarus is happily on the saved side with Abraham and the rich man is on the condemned side in flames of agony. The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus and give him a drop of water but it’s impossible because of the chasm that no one can cross over. Now, the third act: The Rich Man’s Request. The rich man requests Abraham to send a warning to those still living so that they can avoid torment. But the request is denied.
So here, what’s the point? What is Jesus trying to teach us? At least, we get this: equality is not his main concern. In this world and after, everyone doesn’t get the same things anyway—same wealth or same redemption. There’s always unavoidable disparity. There’s the gate of inequality in reality. There’s the chasm of judgment in the afterlife. So what? Does Jesus ask us to turn the world upside down and build the revolutionary world of complete equality? Then, does Jesus ask us to support some kind of communist or socialist ideals? I don’t think so. But from the story, I believe, there’s one thing that Jesus wants us to learn as clearly as possible. That is, God, whom we believe and the Bible testifies, may not be the God of equality, but this God surely is the God of Justice.
Yes, God is just. Therefore, to God’s just eyes, to be rich is not an issue, but it is evil to be careless of other people’ needs and to be indifferent to their suffering and pain. To God’s just eyes, the rich man doesn’t have to be equal to Lazarus. He doesn’t have to eat and sleep next to Lazarus outside the gate of his house. However, it is sinful not to open the gate to Lazarus, not to invite him over to his table, not to share a little bit of his wealth with him. Then, what about us? To God’s just eyes, how would we look like? How would our church look like? And what about our society? To God’s just eyes, wouldn’t it be wrong if our social system hardly opens the gate of privileges and wealth to the disenfranchised? To God’s just eyes, wouldn’t it be wicked if our economic system widens the chasm between the rich and the poor and makes the rich richer and the poor poorer?
The Hebrew Bible tells us, our God of justice has a dream for a just world—the world of jubilee. To make this dream a reality, God gives God’s people the commandment of the year of jubilee, the every seventh year when debts are canceled and slaves are freed. And God asks them to make their land a place where the powerful lift up the week, where the rich share things with the poor. God says, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land’” (Deut. 15:11).
The New Testament tells us, our God of justice still has a dream for a just world—the world of liberation, the world free from sin and death. To make this dream a reality, God sent the Son Jesus Christ. And Jesus reveals us, God’s justifying grace is greater than our sins; God’s steadfast love is more powerful than death. And finally, with his cross of sacrifice, Jesus built a bridge over the chasm of judgment, and with his power of resurrection, Jesus opened the gate of salvation for all who believe in him.
And today, our God of justice calls us to dream God’s dream together, calls us to join God’s mission to make this dream for a just world come true. God calls us to open our doors so that we may someday tear down the gate of inequality in our society. And God calls us to share with others the good news of Jesus Christ, the good news of justification and freedom, so that all of them may also find the new life across the bridge over the chasm of judgement.
Last Sunday, because of the Rally Day outdoor event, the church door was wide open until the afternoon. And I met two different persons in need who just walked inside the church and found me. I heard their stories of struggles and prayed for them. And because there were no Shop Rites gift cards left at the moment, I had to ask them to come and see me again on Tuesday. One of them came back and took bags of food and gift cards. Anyway, as I sent both of them from the church last Sunday, I realized, by just opening the door, our church had opportunities to serve them, to share something with them. That something may not be significant materially and spiritually. But that service, that sharing, is the reason why we are here… here to make this world a little bit closer to a just world, the world that God dreams of.
The Bible tells us clearly. Our God is the God of Justice, and this God commands us to act justly against social evils like poverty. So let us keep our doors open and share the good news of Jesus Christ with others. Let us participate in the missions of our church, missions of United Methodist Women, Souper Saturday, Irvington Feeding, Thanksgiving Feeding, food drive, cookie drive. And let us join the work of inviting people to our worship service, Bible study, small groups, and to the table of fellowship. Again, faithful friends in Jesus Christ, let us keep our doors open and share the good news of Jesus Christ with others. This is the reason why we are here. Let us make this world more just together. Let us dream God’s dream together… the dream for the world of jubilee and liberation, the dream for the kingdom of God where justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amen.
Today we are celebrating Rally Day, the day we officially kick off our new season of ministries, especially, the ministry of Christian education. As I prepared my sermon last few weeks looking forward to this Sunday, I asked myself, what kind of message should I deliver? What kind of message can be most vital for us today as we begin this new season? I tried to find an answer one day but it was hard. I ate chocolate and tried. I drank another cup of coffee and tried. I walked around and tried. Still I couldn’t get a good answer. So I stopped thinking for a while and just started to check my Facebook.
There, I saw many friends of mine posted pictures of their children going to their school on the first day of new school year. I found this cute picture of Dana among them too. Browsing through their posts, I wondered: how would my friends feel when they send their children to the schools? How would they feel…when they realize that they cannot be there for their children whenever they need them? Some friends of mine say, it feels so good to finally get some free time after a long summer vacation wrestling with their kids. But I’m also sure, it’s not just a happy-all-the-way kind of feeling. They must be worried somewhat and might be a little anxious as they send their children away…away from their sight, away from their 24/7 care and protection.
Among the pictures, one picture caught my attention. It was the picture of my friend’s daughter who just entered college this year. Under the picture, my friend left a short reflection. While driving his daughter to college, he thought, he would drop her off and then come back right away. But as soon as he got to her dorm room, he couldn’t help inspecting everything top to bottom. He sat on her bed and chair, tapped on her desk, opened and closed the window, turned the faucet on and off in the restroom, turned the light on and off. After the long security sweep, he finally said good bye to his daughter and left. But his heart was heavy and unrelieved on his way back…until he got a moment of grace. While driving, with no specific reason, he found himself humming the hymn, God Will Take Care of You. “Be not dismayed whate’er betide, God will take care of you; beneath his wings of love abide, God will take care of you. God will take care of you, through every day, o’er all the way; he will take care of you, God will take care of you.” That moment he got the assurance that even though he just left his daughter, God will never leave her; God will be with her and take care of her.
Today, as we begin our new season of ministry and new chapter of our life, I believe no other message can be more foundational than this. God is with you. God never leaves my friend’s freshman daughter; God never leaves our children; God never leaves you; God never leaves our church…God is with you always. Even though you cannot be there for your children, or for your family and friends all the time, even though you are all alone, God is always with you. And God will take care of you.
This faith in our ever-present God doesn’t come out of nowhere. The whole Bible testifies, God is love, and out of this love, God seeks a reconciled relationship and a fellowship with us. The Bible tells us, God came to Abraham to make a covenant with him. God visits Moses in the burning bush to save God’s people from slavery. God spoke to the prophets to turn them back from their wrong ways. And finally, God came down to earth in Jesus. And after Jesus, the Spirit of Jesus abides in us. Hear the Psalm for today, how beautifully the Psalmist sings the love of God in God’s everlasting presence. “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast (Psalm 139:7-10).
Out of love, God comes to us and abides in our lives. This surely is good news for us. And this surely gives us a meaning and reason to live in confidence, live without fear. Paul proclaims, “If God is for us, who is against us?.... Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?.... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us (Romans 8:31;35;37). In this inseparable love, in the inescapable presence of God, we know and believe, we can do all things, and we can triumph over any troubles and any challenges in life. What a grace it is! This might be why, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said, “Best of it all is, God is with us.”
One day an inspiring Christian writer, Henri Nouwen received a letter from a man who desperately wanted to know if humanity would survive the century. It’s so funny because Rev. Nouwen is a priest—not a disaster-prediction expert. Does this man know to whom he is writing? Anyway, to this broad and a little wacky question, Rev. Nouwen answers in a beautiful and meaningful way. You can find the whole letter here in this book, Love, Henri: Letters on Spiritual Life.
I really don’t know if our civilization will survive the century. Considering the growing threat of a nuclear holocaust, there certainly is a reason to wonder. But important for me is not if our civilization will survive or not, but if we can continue to live with hope, and I really think we can, because our Lord [Jesus Christ] has given us his promise that he will stay with us at all times. He is the God of the living, [Jesus] has overcome evil and death and His love is stronger than any form of death and destruction. That is why I feel that we should continually avoid the temptation of despair and deepen our awareness that God is present in the midst of all the chaos that surrounds us and that that presence allows us to live joyfully and peacefully in a world so filled with sorrow and conflict. Please be sure of my prayers for you in these tempting times.
Our lives are uncertain. We don’t know what will happen next. We can’t see what kind of untrodden road will unfold before us, before our children, before our family and friends, and before our church. A nicely paved road? A rocky road? A treacherous cliff-side road? Facing this uncertainty, we are worried and anxious. And in the world, there are full of reasons to fear and despair. Mass shootings, bullies, hate crimes, racism, sexism, natural disasters, and accidents…there are so many things letting us down and fret. But as Rev. Nauwen tells us, for the believers of Jesus Christ, the important thing is not if we can survive uncertainty, but if we can live with hope, deepen our awareness that God is with us in the midst of all the chaos that surrounds us, and reject the urge for worry and despair.
And we are able do this as the believers of Jesus Christ, because Jesus has given us his promise that he will stay with us at all times. At the very last moment of his ascension, Jesus tells his disciples and us, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20). Today as we begin our new season of ministry, new chapter of life, let us remember just this: nothing can separate us from the love of Jesus Christ our Lord, and nothing can move us away from the everlasting presence of God. So go now with deep confidence in the presence of our God in your life and talk to your children, talk to your family and friends, and talk to yourself every day, “God loves you. God is with you. God will take care of you.” Amen.
 Henri J. M. Nouwen, Love, Henri: Letters on Spiritual Life (New York: Convergent Books, 2016), 45.
As I live with my dog, Eco, one of the major challenges I have to deal with on a daily basis is her shedding. Eco has a silky coat with smooth hair. And she sheds a lot every day. So I have to vacuum my house regularly, and always carry a Scotch roller with me to remove her hair from my clothes. There are a couple in my car all the time. Does it bother me? To be honest, it’s annoying sometimes. And I think, to those who have a higher standard of cleanness and hygiene than me, it could be a real issue.
Among many people I know, there’s one person who has the highest standard of cleanness and hygiene. And that person happens to be my mom. One day, Jee Hei and I got the news that she would visit us for about a month. It meant, she was going to meet Eco for the first time. We were so worried. So before she came, we not just sanitized our house but almost sterilized it from top to bottom. The day came at last. My mom arrived. As soon as she entered the house, I could see she was scanning every corner. Then, Eco came to greet her. My mom immediately noticed her shedding. And we were so scared waiting for her judgement, her verdict. But to our surprise, she was alright with that! And she had such a good time with Eco during the entire stay.
How come? It’s because my mom fell in love with Eco. Yes, it was the power of love. Of course, she complained about her shedding sometimes. But above all, she enjoyed staying with Eco. Since then, every time we talk on the phone, she asks me, “How is Eco doing?” And these days, she is even considering adopting a dog. That surprises me so much. Love changes many things. Doesn’t it? Once my mom began to love Eco, the joy of companionship she found with Eco overcame the annoyance of picking up her hair all day long. True, love has a power… power that enables us to find joy over judgment.
In today’s Gospel story, Jesus is hanging out with sinners. The so-called sinners are gathered around him and listening to him. Looking at this, the Pharisees and the scribes, the religious leaders in Jesus’s days, grumble, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” They don’t understand Jesus’s behavior. But here, the question is, “Doesn’t Jesus know that the people he’s hanging out are sinners?” What do you think? I am so sure, Jesus knows it, and he knows much better than the Pharisees and the scribes about their sins. But he’s different. The Pharisees and the scribes only judge those people as sinners, and that’s it. But Jesus, even though he knows and judges their sins, he still stays with the sinners. How come? It’s because Jesus loves them. With love, Jesus finds joy over judgment, finds a way of joyful relationship beyond judgmental exclusion.
To the Pharisees and the scribes, Jesus tells two parables about this love finding joy over judgment. In the first one, a shepherd leaves his flock of ninety-nine to look for one single lamb that is lost. He searches until he finds it, and when he does, he carries that one lamb home on his shoulders, invites his friends and neighbors over, and throws a party to celebrate. The shepherd says, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” In the second parable, a woman loses one of her ten silver coins. Immediately, she lights up a lamp and sweeps her entire house, looking carefully for the coin until she finds it. When she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbors to celebrate. She says, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.”
These parables clearly teach us today, with his amazing love, Jesus finds the lost, the sinners like us. Here in this church today, is there anyone who can confidently say, I’m blameless, I’m not a sinner at all? I think no one can say that. Jesus knows and judges our sins. But above all, he still loves us. And this love changes many things. Although we sometimes go astray like the sheep and get lost like the coin, Jesus seeks us again, turns us back to his love, and rejoices with us. And until he finds us, he desperately searches for us like the good shepherd, like the woman sweeping her entire house. His love doesn’t just give us up for our sins. Rather, his love always looks for the joy of having us back, the joy of acceptance and relationship, the joy of forgiveness and salvation, over judgmental rejection and punishment. This is the good news!
So as the followers of Jesus, who have this good news, what shall we do now? How should we live our lives? The answer is very simple and straightforward. We should love like Jesus. In detail, we should love one another with the love finding joy over judgment. I know, as humans, we can be judgmental to one another and pick up small things from one another. We often say, “That’s wrong. Why does he or she do that? That’s not right.” And I know, we come to church to be better human beings. So sometimes, as we try to be good, we apply a quite high moral and ethical standard to one another. And in this way, the church can become a judgmental place. Yes, it’s natural for us to be judgmental. I get it. But if we stop there, if we stop at judging others and don’t do more than that, we become just the same as other groups of people, just the same as the grumbling Pharisees and the scribes in today’s Gospel story.
Again, what shall we do as Christians, as followers of Jesus Christ? We should love like Jesus. In detail, we should love one another with the love finding joy over judgment. Even though we see others’ mistakes, faults and shortcomings, even though we sometimes get hurt by others’ wrongdoings, please remember, we are called to love one another over our judgement. And we are called to rejoice with one another as we follow Jesus together. With our love, let us make our church a place of joy, the joy of acceptance and relationship, the joy of forgiveness and salvation. And let us make our church a place for sinners where all can come and listen to Jesus, a place for the lost where all are found by Jesus again. When we were yet sinners, Jesus loved us first, found us, and shared the heavenly joy with us. And in spite of all our sins, he still loves us. What a grace it is! So today, let us love like Jesus. Love one another in spite of their sins, find joy over judgment, and say, “Jesus loves you no matter what. So do I.” Amen.
On our vacation, Jee Hei and I visited Acadia National Park in Maine. It was already our third time going there, but it was beautiful and refreshing as always. Every time we go up there, we see a special welcoming sign entering the border of Maine. It says, “Welcome to Maine, The Way Life Should Be.” Have you ever seen this before? I don’t know what kind of life they’re talking about, but it’s quite an attractive slogan. Isn’t it? The way life should be…the words always make me smile. And it takes me back to the beautiful coastlines and mountains of Maine and brings me the memories of great wild life, outdoor activities, lobsters, and so on.
This year, I also passed that sign again. And of course, I got very excited. As we were about an hour away from Acadia, Jee Hei and I stopped by our friend’s house for lunch. He’s a United Methodist pastor who started serving a church in Maine last year and recently had twins. So it was really great to see him and his family. While catching up, he talked about many things… you know, things good and bad, happy and sad. He also shared some hardships he had gone through there. One of them was the winter season of Maine. He said it was the longest and coldest winter he had ever experienced. He even got a little depression so decided to go to a gym for some physical activities. And it wasn’t easy for him to live in a small rural town with no close friends, no other family members living near him. But he had endured them all for his ministry.
Listening to him, I felt like I got a reality check. Maine can be a wonderful place for people like me who visit there for a vacation, but it’s not always refreshing and beautiful for those who actually live there and make their living. Yes, we all know, life ain’t all sunshine and rainbow, not like a vacation. “Welcome to Maine, The Way Life Should Be,” the slogan proudly told me, “life in Maine is great. You will love it.” And it totally got me for a while and made me only see nice things about Maine. But leaving my friend’s house, the slogan began to sound a little different to me. How should our life be anyway?
Through his ministry, one of the main missions Jesus carried out was to show people the way life should be. Many people got fascinated by Jesus. They witnessed amazing miracles and wonders. They saw Jesus silence religious leaders and cast out demons with divine authority. No wonder, large crowds traveled along with Jesus wherever he went as today’s Gospel reading says (Luke 14:25). The crowds believe that Jesus is the true savior, the king, the Messiah. With him, their days of suffering and pain are over and they are going to walk a rosy and shiny way of glory. Yes, with Jesus, that’s the way life should be. They are quite sure about this, but indeed, they misunderstand Jesus a big time.
So in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus looks like giving the crowd a moment of reality check and clarifying the way of life he’s been talking about. So, what kind of solution is offered for this reality check? One thing for sure, Jesus’ solution is not a pep talk, not even close. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple,” Jesus tells the large crowds. “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (14:26-27). If these two warnings are not frightful or bold enough, then here comes the third one: “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (14:33).
Isn’t it strange? Here, Jesus looks like trying so hard to not only disillusion the crowds but also scare them away. We understand, Jesus wants not fans or spectators but disciples. And we know, Jesus wants followers who understand the cost of discipleship—its commitment and its cross. But his words are unnecessarily strong. Needless to say, those hyperboles of Jesus must have frustrated the crowds and scattered them away. No doubt, most of them must have returned home. But then, what happened in reality?
I don’t know whether the solution of Jesus was successful or not, but one thing I can tell you is that although the large crowds disappeared, the disciples still followed Jesus. It seems nothing special. But the disciples still followed Jesus. After the shocking reality check, they must have been also confused and overwhelmed like the crowds. Nevertheless, they kept on following Jesus. We know, Jesus’ disciples were not noble people. They were a group of people including even a rebel, a tax collector, and some Galilean fishermen. Nevertheless, they simply accepted, Jesus is the way. And they followed him as disciples, because they believed, that’s the way their life should be. The disciples failed Jesus many times; they still didn’t fully understand Jesus’s mission; they often argued with one another who’s better. Nevertheless, they followed Jesus. And they took part in Jesus’ ministry and eventually, prepared the way of the Lord—the way of the cross.
Listening to Jesus’s scary warning today, we may get disappointed too. We may feel like it’s truly hard to be a disciple… almost impossible. But let us think about these disciples of Jesus one more time. To be a disciple… perhaps, it all begin with simply not leaving Jesus after the large crowds went away. Perhaps it all begin with simple decision to follow Jesus from where we are now. Who are you today coming all the way from home and joining this worship service to reflect on your life and faith? Who are you today burdened and distressed yet wanting to find God’s peace and grace? Who are you today waking up early on a Sunday morning and bringing your family to this church? Who are you today facing all the challenges in life yet trying hard not to be away from Jesus? Who are you? Are you the disciples? Yes. You. Are.
Although our life is not all sunshine and rainbow, not always like a vacation, although our life is more like a race that requires our commitment, sacrifice, struggle, and fight, can we still follow Jesus? Faithful friends in Christ, let us keep on following Jesus and walking with him the way of cross. Keep on loving. Keep on serving. Keep on believing. Keep on forgiving. Keep on gathering. Keep on encouraging. Keep on struggling. Keep on hoping. Keep on praying. Keep on running the faithful race no matter where we are. Then, by God’s grace, I believe, our life becomes the life in the kingdom of peace and justice, the life in the presence of the Holy Spirit, the life in the power of Jesus Christ our Lord who always leads our life into hopes and wonders, forgiveness and liberation, joy and thanksgiving. Let us follow Jesus. It is the way disciples’ life should be. Amen.
In today’s Gospel story, Jesus looks like a manager and his disciples like his interns. He groups his disciples in pair and sends them to every town and place where he himself would like to visit. For this field education with hands-on practices, Jesus gives detailed instructions to his disciples. Jesus teaches them what they should do and say, when they visit houses and share the good news. Why does he do that? I believe, he does this to train his disciples and get them ready before he leaves them. In fact, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to go through his final days. So it’s about time for him to conduct a midterm evaluation on his disciples’ performance to see how much they have grown to be the trustworthy messengers of God’s new kingdom.
Yes, it looks like Jesus is fitting well into this picture of an internship manager. It’s quite convincing to me too…until I got to reflect on the following words of Jesus, “Go on your way. See I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:3). Honestly, I hadn’t paid much attention to these words. But here, Jesus doesn’t sound like a manager. Apparently, these words show Jesus’s sincere concern, from the bottom of his heart. And the one who can say such compassionate words to somebody must be more than just a manager, more like a parent who cares for the children.
And it’s so true. As he often describes himself, Jesus is the good shepherd who searches for the lost lambs and even lays down one’s life for them. He sees his disciples not just through the eyes of judgment and evaluation but more through the eyes of love and compassion. Then I realized, I had focused too much on what Jesus asks the disciples to do—the tasks, the things that we are in charge as disciples. But I had never focused on how Jesus would have felt when he sent the disciples away.
So, how would Jesus feel when he had to send the disciples “like lambs into the midst of wolves?” Not just close “to” wolves but “into the midst” of wolves? I don’t have a lamb. But I have a different kind of animal in my house living with me. Yes, Eco, my dog. She is so gentle and affectionate. She never has done any harm to anybody. When she meets other dogs outside, although they are smaller than her, she gets scared, curled up between my legs and sometimes begs me to pick her up. Anyway, I imagined, if I send Eco into the midst of wolves, how would I feel? I wouldn’t be just worried but I would be terrified to death. Think about your children and family members. Imagine that you send them into the midst of such a threat. How would you feel? Even when your children leave home for college, or for even a short-term trip abroad, you must be worried. But sending them into the midst of uncertain dangers? It’s hard to imagine.
Then, how about Jesus? Jesus must be deeply concerned and so much worried as he sends his disciples to the world full of challenges and risks. Later, he says, he even watches “Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning” as soon as the disciples hit the road (Luke 10:18). He sees Satan come right away to capture them, tempt them to go astray, and turn their way against God. His heart must be so troubled.
Then, as Jesus sees the dangers loom large, does he give the disciples something to overcome them? Something to depend on? We know, he has power to do so. He may give them some divine warrantee to protect them and provide them with some good supplies to carry out the mission at least without having to worry about what to eat and where to stay. But to our surprise, Jesus orders his disciples something totally unreasonable and absurd. “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road” (Luke 10:4). Here, Jesus basically asks the disciples to take nothing and to make no relationship with someone who may help them on their way. This sounds quite harsh. If he watches Satan let loose and prey on the disciples like wolves take down lambs, why does Jesus not give anything and do anything for them? Is he truly the good shepherd with the sympathetic heart of a parent? What’s the reason?
As today’s Gospel story concludes, we see the reason. Through the perilous field education, Jesus wants the disciples to learn one thing, only one thing. That is the way to depend on God. Depending only on God—nothing else. The disciples are like lambs. They are weak and unable. They have no worldly power to show off. And their weakness cannot be overcome by some things they bring. But in their weaknesses, paradoxically, they have all the power. As long as they depend on Jesus and the one who sends him, the power of Christ dwells in them. This is why the Apostle Paul says, “for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). We are weak but he is strong. We are unable but he is able. So if we depend on and trust in his power, our good shepherd will provide us with all the strength to overcome any hardship and the gifts to make wonderful fruits in the world. That’s the whole point.
After the disciples return from towns, they report on their progress with joy, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” (Luke 10:17) They now get it. Although they feel powerless and helpless on their way, they finally come to realize that they actually have the true power in the name of Jesus. Likewise, it’s time for us now to get it too. On our life’s journey, we better depend on our good shepherd who loves us. If this Jesus is for us and with us, then who can be against us? Whenever we feel weak and unable in the face of challenges and difficulties, we can always gain power in the name of Jesus. And we shall overcome.
But here’s one thing we should be mindful of. We should depend on “Jesus”—not “ourselves.” Sometime when things are going well with us, we tend to depend on our power trusting in ourselves. And as humans, we naturally crave worldly powers; we want to be stronger and richer, more influential and popular. But if we goes on this way too far, we may not remain as lambs of the good shepherd anymore. We may become like wolves in the world. One of the most important early Christian fathers, John Chrysostom said this, “As long as we are sheep, we overcome and, though surrounded by countless wolves, we emerge victorious; but if we turn into wolves, we are defeated, for we lose the help of our shepherd. He, after all, feeds the sheep not wolves, and will abandon you if you do not let him show his power in you.” This is what we should keep in mind.
Faithful friends in Christ, we are blessed to have the good shepherd in our lives. This is the one who is deeply worried about us with a compassionate heart and who always searches for us and even lays down his life for us. “Go on your way. See I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” The good shepherd tells us today that our lives, especially as Christians, may not be easy. But he also gives us a promise, “See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you” (Luke 10:19). To us, Jesus has given the authority to win this battle against any power of tribulation in the world. So let us depend not on us, not our power, but on Jesus and his faithfulness.
Is there anything that discourages you and distresses you? Is there an ongoing or upcoming challenge you need to deal with? Is there anything in your life that makes you feel vulnerable and helpless? Let us look up to our good shepherd who is the source of all our power and blessings. There is a power in the name of Jesus. Because of him living in us, we know, although we are unable, we shall overcome. And whenever we are week, we are strong. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Sebastião Salgado is a renowned Brazilian photographer who has won nearly every major award in photojournalism. Most of his works are documentaries featuring workers, migrants, and families in harsh conditions such as exploitation, war, genocide, famine, and ecological destruction. He traveled around the world, masterfully captured and revealed the human faces of a world in transition. But his work always led him to dangerous places, and he had to witness so many cruel scenes of human atrocities. And it became too much a burden on him. So in the mid-90s, after documenting a horrible genocide in Rwanda, Salgado lost all desire to shoot photos. He said, “I had never imagined that man could be part of a species capable of such cruelty to its own members and I couldn’t accept it.” He got physically and emotionally sick and drained. He lost his faith in humanity.
To recover his exhausted mind and body, he returned home to his family land in Brazil. He remembered, the place was once covered in lush tropical rainforest when he was a child. But instead of his childhood paradise, there, he found a barren wilderness—trees cut down and the wildlife gone away. He was devastated once more. He said, “The land was as sick as I was—everything was destroyed.” His soul was deadened by witnessing the power of death in foreign lands and now in his own family land. Despair and resentment overwhelmed him.
So there, what did he do? Just walked away? No, believe it or not, he decided to plant trees. He followed his wife Lélia Salgado who believed that the forest will be restored. It could sound like a reckless adventure to him. But he followed her faith and amazingly, the forest came back little by little. Together, Salgado and his wife founded Instituto Terra. And so far, this small organization has planted 4 million saplings and brought the forest and wildlife back from the dead. Salgado said, “when we began to do that, then all the insects and birds and fish returned and, thanks to this increase of the trees I, too, was reborn—this was the most important moment.”
Reading this story a week ago, I felt like I was electrified. I thought, it’s more than just another heart-warming story, because I saw a strong connection between what Salgado has done and what we are supposed to do as Christians—practice our faith.
In the world, we often face the powers that deaden our souls. And we have experiences that leave us hopeless and helpless. We sometimes feel like the world is a cruel and evil place where the power of death ruins the land of living at any given moment. And we think our society is not just or safe but it only brings challenges to our faith—our faith in human goodness and reason, our faith in the systems of justice, our faith in community, and our faith in God. Like the devastated forest, our soul, our society we live in, may be sick. But here, in this situation, what shall we do?
I think, many of us may just walk away. We may either admit or ignore the situation out there and just try to be happy for ourselves as much as we can. But we know, this way is not the way that Christians are called to live. Then, what? Yes, we are called to follow Jesus. Here, following Jesus means two things: we are called to keep our faith in himand to put that faith into action. Like Salgado who has kept a simple faith and planted trees following his wife, we are asked to do such things out of our faith and change our lives. Indeed, in face of the deserted world, the ruined God’s vineyard, we shall follow Jesus. We shall follow him by keeping our faith in him. This is the matter of life and death, the matter of salvation. And we shall follow him by putting our faith into action. This is the only way to bring change to our lives.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus teaches us how to follow him. In the story, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem with his disciples. On the way, they were not welcomed by the Samaritans in a village. The disciples get mad. And James and John ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them? (Luke 9:54)” Who are these violent extremists? Immediately, Jesus rebukes them. Why? There’s no time for despair or resentment. To follow Jesus, they should leave those negative feelings behind. Shake them off and follow him again.
And as they continue to go on the road, someone comes and talks to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go” (9:57). Then, Jesus tells him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (9:58). The purpose of this speech? I think, Jesus is warning him. He wants to say, “to follow me, you will have to endure inconvenience and hardship.” Fair enough.
Again on the way, Jesus meets a person and asks him to follow him. But he says, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Then, Jesus replies, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (9:60). What does he mean? Here, in his answer, Jesus is clearly saying, “to follow me, you have to do it right now because following me is a life-and-death-matter. Follow me right now and be alive. Or stay for a while and be spiritually dead.” This is an urgent choice to make.
Today, how are we following Jesus? Are we leaving things behind, enduring inconvenience and hardship, and following him urgently and immediately as Jesus teaches us? Do we believe, his love and grace are the true powers that save us and the world from the power of death? Do we firmly believe, we can make changes here by loving God and loving one another, by being kind and forgiving like Jesus? Sometimes our society and circumstances in life, and our very selves may be like the deserted forest ruined by feelings of despair and resentment, powers of death and evil. But right at that moment, let us not forget, that’s the right moment to follow Jesus again. That’s the right moment to keep our faith in him and put our faith into action right away.
I want all of us to try this at least once in this week. At a moment when you feel hopeless and helpless, at a moment when you feel the power of the world is too huge to handle, talk to yourself, this is the right moment to follow Jesus. This is the right moment to trust in his goodness and plant a seed of faith, a sapling of hope, and a tree of love. To make our wilderness green, we don’t need to put grand-scale efforts to turn things upside down at once. And honestly, we can’t. But look at Sebastião Salgado’s example. His humble beginning proves that grand accomplishments are made through even the smallest steps. Likewise, let us take our own small cross and follow Jesus today one step at a time. Again, this is the right moment to trust in the goodness of Jesus and plant a seed of faith, a sapling of hope, and a tree of love. Then, I am sure, the life-giving love of Jesus Christ will help us change the wilderness of our lives into a beautiful forest that revitalizes our soul and nurtures many other lives. Amen.
The Exorcist. Have you ever watched this classic horror movie or heard about it? I think, most of you at least know what it is about. It’s about the demonic possession of a 12-year-old girl and her mother’s attempt to rescue her through an exorcism. When it was released in 1973, it was so sensational that people lined up at theaters enduring cold winter weather. And you know what, people literally got sick watching the movie. Many people felt nauseous and vomited. There were reports of heart attacks and miscarriages, believe or not. And a psychiatric journal even coined the term “cinematic neurosis” to describe these symptoms. But if you would watch the movie now, I’m sure you wouldn’t be scared that much. Some of you may just scoff at it and say, “Oh…come on.” It’s because all those 70s’ visual effects using puppets and make-ups look poor and unrealistic. It’s not even close to hyper-realistic computer graphics these days.
As such, today’s Gospel reading may sound like another unrealistic story of exorcism to us. It’s not even from the 70s. It’s an ancient story… about the demonic possession of a man in Gerasenes and the exorcism Jesus conducted. The story goes like this. It was near the Sea of Galilee, away from a town. A man lives in the place of the dead and wanders around the wilds wearing no clothes. He is a man possessed by not just one evil spirit but many demons. He probably has multiple personalities and different voices. This man is a threat to the townspeople. So they try many things to capture him and keep him bound with chains and shackles. But driven by strong demons, this man always breaks the bonds, goes back into the wilds, and haunts the town every night. But to him, Jesus approaches one day. This group of demons in his body ask Jesus not to order them to go back into the abyss. So Jesus permits them to enter the herd of swine. And the herd rushes down the steep bank into the lake and gets drowned.
How does the story sound? Sounds like a supernatural horror movie, like The Exorcist? Yes, it might. But what should we do with this story now? Can we just dismiss this story altogether as an unrealistic story? Can we just scoff at it and say, “Oh…come on?” I guess, we can’t. Let me tell you, there is a big difference between a horror movie and this story in the Gospel, because it’s a story in “the Gospel,” in “the Bible,” my friends! We Christians don’t take the story in the Gospel as a mere ancient fiction, but as the living word of God. We believe, it has power to change our lives and save our souls. Different from watching a movie, whenever we read the Scripture, we think about its meaning to us, about what God wants us to hear from the story. But then, what on earth does this movie-like exorcism story of the demon-possessed man in Gerasenes have to do with us? How can it be the good news for the contemporary people like us? And finally, how can it be “our” story, the story of God’s people?
Let us closely look at the story. I know, we may not see such dramatic case like the man in Gerasenes around us. But what about the evil that torments him? Can you confidently say that the power of the evil and its demonic forces are unreal too? Whatever language we use to describe this power and whichever way we define it in a theological, medical, psychological, or sociological way, what we know for sure is that this force harms and destroys the man. It “strips him of agency, sanity, dignity, and community. It keeps him in isolation [in the margins of his society]. It renders him anonymous. It encourages him to mutilate his own body. It deadens his soul and divides his mind. In short, it deprives him of self-control, and propels him towards self-destruction.”
Does any of these sound familiar? Still unfamiliar to you? Do you remember the horrible bombings that happened in Sri Lanka last April? Think about those suicide bombers and terrorists who planned the bombings, who attacked three churches and other locations on Easter Sunday morning and killed 258 people. What about the mass-shootings? In the US, in this year only, so far we have 148 mass shootings reported. And as a consequence, 162 people were killed and 560 injured. Aren’t these too extreme cases for the evil in the world? Then what about the power of evil that shapes our society? “Some of us are imprisoned within systems of injustice that stretch back so many centuries. Some of us experience our skin colors, accents, genders, sexualities, or status as magnets for other people’s hatred.” Some of us were abused as children and victims of bullies. And what about the power of evil that affects our personal life? Some of us are caught in depression, addiction, anxiety, greed, self-loathing and so on. Some of us are slaves to money and lust. Some of us can’t shake off our violent impulses and resentments.
All these strong and week, obvious and insidious influences of demonic forces are more than real then as well as now. Certainly, the story of demon-possessed man in Gerasenes is not just an ancient oddity. It is, in a different way, an everyday story in our days and more or less, our own story. And the evil that haunts us has many faces, many names. They are indeed, “Legion,” like the demons identify themselves before Jesus, which means, a unit of 3,000 to 6,000 men in the Roman army. We are surrounded by a legion of evil forces. And every one of us is vulnerable to such forces that seek to take us over and separate us from Jesus and from one another. We are susceptible to such forces that seek to possess us and control our heart and mind, our emotion and reason, our motivation and choices. Look around and look inside.
Then, what shall we do to be protected and eventually liberated from such evil power? From the Gospel story, what I found as a solution is very simple. “Let Jesus call you and speak to you.” In the story, the healing begins as Jesus talks to him. He asks, “What is your name?” Then after he casts out the demons, he sends the man with a mission,“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you” (Luke 8:39). Let Jesus call you and speak to you. Then you may not only get better but also become his servant to carry out his mission. It’s not difficult. Just practice listening to him.
Faithful friends in Christ, the power of evil and its demonic and destructive forces are real. They come to us in many faces and try to possess us always. So we should be awake in our prayer every day. Every day, we better check our heart and mind to see whether there is any influence of the evil. Also we should receive the word of God and renew our identity as God’s people as we gather on Sundays and in any other occasions. We better try to stay connected to Jesus and listen to him who calls us and speaks to us. Our Christian journey is a kind of battle. We should keep ourselves from the evil. But here is the good news: in this battle, the victory is already won by Jesus Christ our Lord. And this battle is ultimately not ours to win. Of course, we should do our best to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ on our journey. But it is ultimately Jesus who leads our way. So let him come to you; open your hearts and minds to him in your prayer, in your silent meditation, in your services, in your good works, in your fellowships. He will call you and speak to you. He will heal you and lead you into his mission of sharing the good news of liberation. In him, may we always find our healing and our freedom. Amen.
Debie Thomas, “Legion,” posted 16 June 2019 on www.journeywithjesus.net (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2259).