“Acceptance is Powerful” — Rev. Chelsea Page

October 16, 2022
Blessed Youth Sunday
Mark 9

A few weeks ago Linda gave our youth group a tour of the Salt Lake Cemetery, and since it’s Halloween we just had to visit the spookiest headstone in the United States, that of Lilly Gray, “Victim of the Beast 666.” I feel sorry for this woman that her husband Elmer put that there for all the world to see. As interesting as it is to speculate on poor Lilly’s story, I would like to declare an end to that. Lilly Gray was a blessed child of God who now rests in peace with God, far beyond any of the negative labels she might have carried in life – or in her death. And as much as I dislike having to bless her husband, the same must be said for Elmer too. He was a blessed child of God – just as we all are.

And so the same thing must be said for the child in our story today, the one who was allegedly possessed by a demon or “unclean spirit.” In the Bible, demons were blamed for any symptoms of illness that didn’t fall into recognizable disease categories of their day. But just like in the cemetery, there are no actual demons in this story, okay? Just a treatable, biological disease that we call epilepsy. Brain disorders and cognitive and mental health are too important in our everyday lives to speak of in outdated supernatural terms. Epilepsy is not an evil, unclean or demonic experience. Epilepsy is not caused or perpetuated by a person or their parents’ lack of faith. It is also not a challenge bestowed by God to help grow one’s moral character. If epilepsy is not a curse, it’s not a blessing either. But people with epilepsy are blessed. They are blessed because of who they are, and they are blessed by the love that is shared in their lives, like the child in our story is blessed by the love of his parent.

Now, we can talk about this rationally. But oh, the anguish of being a parent when your child is sick. My heart hurts for the parent in our story, whose child has been injured by burning and in danger of drowning. I don’t think there is anything worse than watching a little one suffer and be at risk. The last thing a family needs is to be offered a false promise of God’s healing, or be encouraged to blame God’s all-knowing will for their unanswered prayers. I think this is why Jesus is so mad at the disciples in our story today. He encounters them engaged in a big theological debate, and quickly discovers that they have been sidetracked from providing actual care to a desperate family. I imagine Jesus thinking, Seriously?? You knew I was coming back here, and yet you didn’t wait with this family so that I could take care of them, but instead took it into your own hands, turning their need into a referendum on your own miracle powers? Why couldn’t you just take this poor family somewhere quiet and peaceful and wait for me to get here?

Now, did Jesus’s arrival actually cure the boy of epilepsy? I’m sorry to say that I don’t actually know. I’m not saying it didn’t; all things are possible with God. But the story does not actually report the boy speaking or hearing after his encounter with Jesus, only that his seizure had ended and he was able to stand.

So a cure could be one thing, but healing is another. No matter the circumstances or outcomes, there is always some kind of healing that is possible. Look at the beautiful care that Jesus provided. He invited the child himself to come and be present, and put him squarely in the center of his attention. He paid attention to his symptoms and asked caring questions of the parent. He offered words of hope and encouragement, and ritual prayer, and healing touch. All of this in about two minutes, compared to the endless theological controversy his disciples got themselves into. Surely all that Jesus did here, helped. Every act of care adds up.

Where I see the greatest healing occurring in this story, is when Jesus helps the parent move from self-blame into hope for the future. Instead of condemning the parent for his sense of unbelief, Jesus encourages him that even the tiniest shred of hope is enough for the possibilities of God to flow. Many parents blame themselves for not being able to fix their child’s problems or even save their life, which is agony.  But unbelief is no barrier for God, who is always coming toward us with healing and love. You with your unbelief and doubt, your weary discouragement and despair, are fully worthy of Jesus’s help and care. Just as we all are.

And as much as the disciples really botched this one, my heart actually hurts for them too. I think they speak for all of us when they ask, Why could we not remove it? It is so hard to trust that just being a hopeful and prayerful presence is enough, when what we really want is to change or control the situation. But Jesus says, this kind of suffering can only come out through prayer, or I would say, presence. The healing presence of a community that can accept the reality of a child’s physical challenges and find ways to affirm that while the current reality is difficult, illness and disability are a completely natural and normal part of life. An accepting community accompanies families in the present, and also encourages them to have hope for the future. Because the truth is, for every blessed child and youth, their future is open. Time and treatment and adjustment can bring improvements, and with God’s faithful drive to bless us always, better things are always possible.

I’d like to end by bringing you the words of an Episcopal priest named Collette Potts. She wrote this message for parents of children who live with mental health challenges, but I think it’s for all of us facing illness at any age.

You might be wrestling with your faith, wondering Where is God right now? Why would God do this to my child, to me, to our family? From this perspective, we accept these questions as valid aspects of a person’s experiences, and important to acknowledge and name. In this context, what we like to convey is that wherever your child is, you are, or your family is, you are all loved, lovable, and worthy of God’s love and the love of this community. As it is, it is valuable and enough to be loved. More than words, this is power that can support you and allow you to face, acknowledge and accept the truth of the situation you’re in.

Friends, acceptance is powerful. This is the voice of a healing and empowering community. This is the wider perspective that lifts our children and youth up to help them find their feet, without demanding that anything about their current situation be different. Youth are blessed and whole just as they are, no matter what. Let us thank God for their lives. Amen.