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.
Pastor Earl Kim