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).
Two weeks ago, I had such a grateful opportunity to travel Greece with my wife looking around the cities where Paul had visited. We started our journey in Athens. And the closest city, Corinth, was our next stop. Then, from there, we drove up to the far north to visit Thessaloniki and Philippi. On the way, we stayed one night in Delphi which is famous for the great ancient temple. This temple is located deep in the mountains. Arrived at a hotel there, I was so tired after a long drive that I fell asleep early. But because of jet lag, I woke up in the middle of night around 3am. Drinking a cup of water, I thought, I might see some stars. So I walked out to a small balcony. Breathing in fresh and crisp night air, I looked up the sky. And I was just amazed. I could see countless stars. It was the most beautiful night sky I have ever met. Not only that, I also noticed a faint band of shimmering light across the sky. I thought, it could be Milky Way. So I brought out my camera and took some long-exposure photos. And fortunately, I could capture this view.
That night I sat on the balcony for almost three hours. It was such a wonderful time, except the loud snoring sound from the man next room (yes, it was such a small country hotel).
Watching the night sky, I couldn’t help recalling the famous Psalm, which happens to be the Psalm for today, Psalm 8. “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens” (Psalm 8:1).
I know, we rarely look up the night sky. So we don’t have many chances to be astonished like this Psalmist. But every night, although we cannot see it clearly, we know there’s Milky Way over our head, which is the plane of our Galaxy made up with billions of stars. And we know, out in the universe, there are billons of other Galaxies too. This magnitude of creation always inspires awe and wonder as we imagine it.
In the face of this vast universe, some people may ask how small and how short-lived we are, feeling futility and meaninglessness of life. But when we look at the grand drama of creation, our Christian faith always awakens us to be amazed and to find more meanings of our life and more reasons to be thankful. The Psalmist sings, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:3-5). The Psalmist encourages us. “Yes, we are such humble humans. We are dust. We are small and short-lived. But let us open our eyes and see. God who created this whole universe is mindful of us, comes to us in person, and makes a loving relationship with us. Isn’t this incredible? Isn’t this amazing?”
Today, on this Trinity Sunday, we especially need this sense of amazement filled with heartfelt gratitude more than any other Sundays. We need this inspiration of the Psalmist to truly understand the holy mystery of the Trinity. Why? It’s because the Trinity is not just a mere idea, not just a theological concept, but it ultimately tells us the way that God is mindful of us, the way that God loves us. It’s because the Trinity is all about God’s love that has been revealed to us in three different ways, in three different persons. And the point is, this love doesn’t have to be reasonable or verifiable. This love doesn’t have to be understood by our rational mind, because this love surpasses all our understandings; this love comes to us with awe and wonder beyond our limited knowledge. So we better open our hearts to be amazed, astonished, and inspired.
The Bible tells us stories of this wonderful love, how this love shapes our lives as well as the history of the whole universe. God, the Creator, created us in God’s own image with the sacred worth. God, the Redeemer Jesus Christ, came to live with us in the form of human being, loved us to the end, and died for us for our new life. God, the Holy Spirit, abides in each one of us and inspires us to be true disciples. This triune God has done all this work for no one else but each one of us. Then, do we deserve this love? I don’t think so. God doesn’t have to love us. And we haven’t done anything worthy for this grace. We have no merit to claim it. Nonetheless, God decided to come to us, makes a relationship with us, claims us God’s own, and remain faithful to us…in three different ways. This amazing threefold love, this triple love, is the essence of the Holy Trinity.
In this vast universe, in this world filled with sense of futility and meaninglessness of life, our faith looks up to the Lord in whom we find true meanings and to whom we anchor our humble selves. Then God will surely open our eyes and hearts towards the love we have received and God’s unfathomable work of grace for us and fill us with gratitude. And we may finally sing from the bottom of our hearts, “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8:1) “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (8:4)
Sisters and brothers in Christ, on this Trinity Sunday, I want you to remember once again, the Trinity is all about God’s life-giving love that has been revealed to us in three different ways, in three different persons. Because of this threefold love, we have a new life. And because of this triple love, our lives become meaningful. Today, let us go and share this love with others and share the story of everlasting love. Tell them, God has come to us not once, not even twice, but three times to show God’s love. Today, let us also share this triple love through our practices. If you have someone hard to love, don’t just try once and give up. Try twice. Try three times asking help from the Holy Spirit.
Today, as we reflect on the Trinity, I hope and pray that God the Creator may amaze us again with the grace that created us in God’s image. God the Redeemer may astonish us again with the love that renews our life. And God the Holy Spirit may inspire us again with the guidance that leads us always into love and service for one another. May our triune God’s threefold love be with all of us in our lives always. Amen.
On the day of Pentecost, the people gathered in the upper room experienced the most incredible event in their lives. It’s a wild experience. It’s beyond their imagination. There was a stormy sound, like “the rush of a violent wind,” like a tornado. It came down suddenly from heaven and filled the entire house. There was a strange vision. Flames of fire, like tongues, touched the heads of the people. There was an unfathomable wonder. The believers were gifted with the ability to speak fluently in a new language. In the presence of this Spirit of God, there was communication over any human barriers and unity within people’s diversity and differences. This event truly surpassed any human understanding. So the onlookers “were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’” And they sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’”
For sure, this first day of Pentecost was full of wonder and divine mystery. And today, we are celebrating another day of Pentecost with all Christians in the world. We praise together the coming of the Holy Spirit who gave birth to the church. But we know, today we may not have the same dramatic event. We don’t expect the Spirit to descend on us like the strong wind of fire and embolden us to preach the gospel to anyone we meet. We don’t expect that, do we? Yes, we better admit, we wouldn’t have such drama today.
Nonetheless, I believe, there’s at least one thing we can surely do even today. What is it? I think, that is, to be open-minded to the new possibilities of God. We may open ourselves to the unexpected visit of the Holy Spirit in our lives. And we may open our hearts to fresh changes and new experiences. We’ll never know what is going to happen in our lives in the presence of the Spirit. God may do something totally new, something radically unimaginable here and now with us. Yes,why not?
But I know, it’s very hard to be open-minded. It’s truly easier said than done. Think about our human nature and our ego. We are naturally inclined to avoid any sudden surprises. We don’t like any unexpected events and changes in life. It’s because we want control over our life. We always feel like our life is in the way it should be when we can plan on it and manage it.
And in this light, we can understand the onlookers of the Pentecost event. They were just the same as us, just usual humans. They were so surprised when they witnessed the unforeseen work of the Spirit. In such strange situation, they tried not to lose themselves and not to lose control. So they came up with some words to grasp and delimit this event. And they finally figured the closest possible description. That was, drunkenness. They define the experience of the believers as mere drunkenness, saying “Look at them. They are acting like being filled with new wine. Yes, they are.”
This was how those onlookers close off themselves from the astonishing work of the Spirit. And how about us? Don’t we sometimes do the same? How much and how often are we open to the new possibilities of God? On this new day of Pentecost, I believe the Holy Spirit inspires us to honestly look into our hearts. Are we like those earliest believers on the upper room? Do we joyfully open our hearts to the Spirit and yield our control for the amazing presence of the Spirit within us? Or, are we more like those onlookers? Do we just follow our will and delimit the work of the Spirit on our own terms, saying, “been there and done that”? And are we willing for the Spirit to grasp us and use us in a way out of our expectation? Or, are we willing for our ego to hold initiative of our life and lead us in our own preferred ways?
The temptation to close off ourselves from the unexpected work of the Spirit is strong, very strong. But today’s Acts reading testifies to a certain truth and promise for us. If we truly open our hearts to the Holy Spirit and give way to her, the Spirit will get ahold of us and have her way with us. If we surrender our will to control and give room to the Spirit, she will dwell in us and mold us to be more like Jesus. And this is what we call “the way of sanctification,” “the way of holy living.” We know this work of the Spirit can happen in our lives if we truly believe.
Faithful friends in Christ, the great ancestors of faith, spirituals, and theologians in the whole history of Christianity basically teach us this truth, this promise of our salvation, our new life. Our journey of new life is the journey of opening ourselves more and more to God by emptying ourselves. And the more we are open to God, the more the Spirit abides in us, and the more we become sanctified and Christ-like. In the presence of the Holy Spirit, this journey may not go as we expected. The direction of this journey may be suddenly changed. Our planned itinerary may be turned upside down. But isn’t our goal of Christian life to follow Jesus and be more like him anyway? Then, why not? Why not give way, give room to the Holy Spirit? Why not let go of our way, our plan, our control, our will?
Today, let us truly open ourselves to the new and unexpected possibilities of the Holy Spirit. Then, only then, we may experience true Pentecost among us. As the believers of Jesus Christ our Lord, we all have received the Holy Spirit and we are living our lives in the presence of this Spirit of Jesus. This is what Jesus promises in today’s Gospel reading. Thus, for our journey of sanctification, all we need to do is to open our hearts to this ever-present Spirit. In your time of prayer and reflection, ask this Spirit to awaken you and lead your way. Why not? Ask this Spirit to dwell in you and inspire you to keep up the good work of faith. Ask this Spirit to surprise you sometimes and turn you upside down to remain truthful and faithful to Jesus only. And ask this Spirit to come and set you on fire of love that you can love others as yourselves. Open your heart. Give way and give room to the Holy Spirit today. Why not?