Sticks and Stones

[This message, from Luke 4:31-37, was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian Church on June 27, 2021 and can be found in video form on Perinton’s facebook page. That form includes a brief interview with a mental health care professional and a photo of Sarah, who wrote the poem I read toward the end.]

He went down to Capernaum, a city in Galilee, and was teaching them on the sabbath. 32 They were astounded at his teaching, because he spoke with authority. 33 In the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, 34 “Let us alone! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 35 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” When the demon had thrown him down before them, he came out of him without having done him any harm. 36 They were all amazed and kept saying to one another, “What kind of utterance is this? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and out they come!” 37 And a report about him began to reach every place in the region. (Luke 4:31-37)

“Sticks and stones may break my bones,…”

My mother taught me this little poem when I was a youngster. It was short and pithy and easy to memorize. It went like this

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, But names will never hurt me.”

She was teaching me something important about having a good self-image. But with time, I found the little poem part true and part false. The first half is true. I have broken my share of bones in my life. I am particularly good at breaking ribs, once by tripping on a stick while jogging. “Sticks and stones may break my bones,…” Yes.

But the second line is false. “But names will never hurt me” is not true. Names can hurt us. Naming is a human activity that can be build up or tear down. People have names. Those names should be honored.

In the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon… Does anyone there know his name? Is he known in Capernaum? Is he a beggar or a thief? In and out of trouble with the law? And why is he in the synagogue on sabbath day? Instead of a name, he is given a description: a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon.

It is sabbath day and a young teacher named Jesus is teaching. They are astounded at his teaching, because he speaks with authority. And here is this man, the one with the spirit of an unclean demon. And he cries out with a loud voice…. Does that disturb the worshipers gathered in the synagogue on the sabbath day? Are the noises coming from his mouth uncouth? Unsettling? Raw? Does his presence make people uncomfortable?

Just what is this man’s condition? Most students of that time period and most biblical scholars believe that this likely was what we would call a mental health matter. In that time, most people believed in the spirit world. There were good spirits, often called angels, and bad spirits, often called demons. The word demon, and its varied forms, occurs over 60 times in the New Testament. The word angel appears over three times that, which is good to remember. Is this man with the spirit of an unclean demon experiencing some kind of mental illness? I can’t be sure, but I think so.

In the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon… In the time of Jesus this was a reality readily recognized. In his letter to the Church in Ephesus, Paul writes, For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12)

There is a reason that the novels of Stephen King have sold over 350 million copies. He writes about the darkness in our world, and people today, just as much as people 20 centuries ago, know that there is a dark side to life. There is a reason millions read “The Exorcist” and millions more watched the movie. I can’t explain it fully, but I know that in our world today, there are spirits of light and spirits of dark at work. And sometimes those spirits, spirits of light and of dark, are at work in us. I can’t explain this, but I know it is true.

In the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon… In this one synagogue in Capernaum on this one day Jesus is present. The Messiah, the savior, is present. He hears the cries of that spirit within the man. He hears the jabs of that spirit directed at him. Jesus doesn’t flinch. He accepts that man. He welcomes that man. He calls that unclean demonic spirit out of the man and he sets the man free. That man leaves the synagogue with a new life. A new day dawns for him. If I can’t explain all of this, I know that Jesus has authority over the physical world and the spirit world. He calms stormy seas and he sends unclean demons packing. He is Lord and that unclean demon in that unnamed man knows it.

This is personal for me. In my family of origin there was a strain of mental illness. When I was born, my mother went into depression and sent me to live with my grandparents while she got help. I have no memory of that time. My mother didn’t need to tell me about her illness when I was a baby, but I am so grateful that she did. She could have hidden it from me, but she didn’t. She modeled gracious honesty, and helped me appreciate the reality of mental illnesses. My older brother struggled with dark depression over many years. Finally he died in the dark depths of depression. Going through his belongings, my mother found this photograph of Donnie being baptized. She gave it to me, and I treasure it. It is dated three months before his death. Perhaps knowing that he couldn’t handle that depth of depression, he found a church and was baptized. He had long been away from the church, but I believe he was never away from the Lord. He knew where his ultimate home was and he returned home. I am so grateful that a church in southern California named Hope Chapel welcomed him in his brokenness. On his gravestone we had these words of Jesus etched: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-29)

I have a vision of the Church becoming more like Jesus, becoming more of a community of no-judgmental welcome. A young woman in our congregation, whose hugs are the best in the world, has never been verbal. She has some disabilities, but she also has some amazing abilities. She wrote this poem when she was a teenager:

My disability makes me want to scream.

I can’t make my body work right.

I can’t be like other kids.

I can’t even SCREAM.

When will people learn how frustrating my disability is?

When will people understand what I go through in a day?

When will they be my friend?

Why is it so hard?

I need to cry but no tears come.

I need some friends to listen.

Read my words.

Hear my scream.

See my tears.

Learn to slow down and listen.

Be my friend.

My friend has a name: Sarah. Though I have known her only a short time, I am better for knowing her. Jesus knows her scream—he hears our screams, even our silent screams.

Join me in envisioning a church where a man with the spirit of an unclean demon is always welcome. Let’s envision a church where all people are welcome, whatever their abilities, disabilities, needs and gifts, whatever their life experiences. Let’s envision a church where it is as natural to pray for someone with a mental illness as it is to pray for a person with cancer or a broken bone. Let’s envision a church where stigmas are removed and people are welcome and honored for who they are.

In this season of spiritual care, we see Jesus reaching out to all kinds of people. Some are named; some are not. In this season of spiritual care, let’s envision a church where Jesus is just as present as he was one day when a man entered a synagogue with the spirit of an unclean demon. I can’t help but picture that that man left the synagogue that day with a smile. And a name. A child of God welcomed home and set free.

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