It’s been said that “Minds are like parachutes. They only function when open.”
Being open-minded can be challenging, especially when we have preconceived ideas about how things should be. These can get in the way of seeing how things could be.
I like to think of myself as open-minded, but we all have our blind spots. About ten years ago, Bruce Reyes-Chow, a pastor and a former moderator of the PCUSA, posted a question on Facebook about doing church online, something along the lines of whether that could be a real church. I didn’t know who Bruce was back then, but I thought I knew something about how to do church, so I weighed in. At that time, I said I thought it was a good way to invite people to church, but I didn’t think it could be church all by itself. Over the past year and a half, we’ve been learning how to do just that – church online. And Bruce has been the guru many of us have turned to for help in doing it. Thankfully Bruce did not listen to me or anyone else who couldn’t see what he envisioned about doing ministry online.
Online ministry is one of many ways that we see that God’s love is unlimited, not bound by the limits of time and space, nor our biases or limited expectations.
In our gospel reading today from Mark 7, we see Jesus going beyond the usual limits. He’s in the city of Tyre, a gentile territory which Jews traditionally avoided. Jesus has gone there to get some rest away from the crowds that have been following him. Just before this, he’s had a run-in with some pharisees who got upset because Jesus’ disciples weren’t washing their hands before they ate, something that was more of a ritual than an actual washing, since they only used water, no soap, no hand sanitizer. Then his disciples also didn’t understand what Jesus had told the pharisees. Maybe after that encounter with the closed-mindedness of the Pharisees, and the disciples’ slowness, Jesus was feeling argumentative, because his response to this woman asking him to heal her daughter is surprisingly negative.
She begs him to heal her daughter, but Jesus says, “The children get fed first. It’s not right to throw their food to the dogs.” In Matthew’s version of this story, Jesus says, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). It’s like he’s saying, “You’re outside my target ministry.” But the woman persists. “Even the dogs under the table get the scraps.” Jesus rewards her persistence by doing as she asks and healing her daughter. The woman returns home to find that her daughter is no longer being tormented, and is lying peacefully on her bed.
We don’t know why Jesus responded that way. It’s one of the questions that scholars have been discussing for ages. Some give Jesus the benefit of the doubt in their explanations, and some call Jesus on the carpet for calling this woman a dog. I think it’s good for us to be disturbed by this story. Maybe Jesus is showing us what we look like when we are being ugly to one another, or when we shut people out or disregard them.
Earlier we sang, “All are welcome in this place, no one left out or unwanted.” I think we’d really like that to be true, but we might also have a picture in mind of what that looks like, and we might be disregarding anyone who doesn’t fit our picture.
Like the cobbler named Martin in the short story by Leo Tolstoy. Martin has a dream in which Jesus says, “Watch for me tomorrow. I’ll come to you.” So Martin keeps watch out the window as he does his work. He sees an old man who is worn out from shoveling snow and Martin invites the man in to get warm with a cup of tea. Later on he sees a young woman struggling to keep her baby warm, and Martin invites her in to get warm with some soup and gives her a cloak for the baby. After awhile he sees an old woman carrying a basket of apples that she’s selling. She’s fighting with a young boy who tries to steal one. Martin runs out to break up the fight and help them resolve their issue.
That night as Martin sits down to read his Bible, he asks Jesus why he didn’t come like he said he would. Jesus shows Martin that he did come, as the old man, and as the young woman with the baby, and as the apple seller and the boy with whom she was fighting. And then Martin’s eye falls on the verse in Matthew 25 that says, “Truly I say to you, inasmuch as you did it for one of the least of these my brethren, you did it for me” (Matthew 25:40)” “And Martin understood that his dream had come true; and that the Savior had really come to him that day, and he had welcomed him.”
God’s love is unlimited and helps us to live out the words we sing: All are welcome in this place. No one left out or unwanted.
In the second part of our reading from Mark, Jesus goes to another area that is also a gentile region, the Decapolis. While he’s there, he’s asked to heal a man who is deaf and speaks unintelligibly. So Jesus takes the man away from the crowd, puts his fingers in the man’s ears, and puts some spit on his tongue, and says, “Ephphatha. Be opened.” (Mark 7:34) And immediately the man’s ears were opened and he spoke plainly.
Be opened. After the pharisees who wouldn’t listen, and the disciples who couldn’t understand, and the woman who wouldn’t take no for an answer, this man just needed his ears opened.
What if being open were as simple as looking for opportunities to listen, and especially to listen to people we might normally disregard, or who are talking about things that are hard for us to understand?
How much might we be missing out on being a part of what God is doing because we are not open to seeing things differently or understanding that God might be working differently than we expect?
Jesus met the Syrophoenician woman because he went to a new place, away from the people he was normally hanging out with. According to tradition, he shouldn’t be talking to a gentile, or a woman. It’s audacious that she is asking, and remarkable that he would respond, and yet he does, and this small encounter brought God’s miracle of grace and healing to this woman’s daughter.
I wonder how much we disregard small encounters, whether we are in a new place, or in a place we go all the time. When my husband Rob and I first moved to South Carolina, we were excited to be in a new place and to meet new people, so we said hello to everyone, everywhere we went. It was fun! Walking down the aisles of Walmart, we said “Hi!” to the people we met and most of them said “Hi” back! Some even stopped long enough to have a conversation.
We got busier after awhile and less open to taking the time to meet people in Walmart. Instead we focused on the chore of shopping and getting on with the day. But what if those encounters with people were the most important part about going to Walmart? Or to going anywhere? What if those people were Jesus walking by, like the people Martin saw through his shop window?
This week I started reading Jemar Tisby’s newest book How to Fight Racism and I was surprised at the simplicity of the three basic steps he outlines: awareness, commitment, and relationships. He calls these the “head-hands-heart triumvirate.” Awareness is the head, commitment is the hands, and relationships are the heart. We’ve made a start with our commitment to be a Matthew 25 church, and we’ve done some work on our awareness with some book study groups. Hopefully we’re continuing to work on our awareness on our own by continuing to read. We also keep learning through documentaries and movies and webinars. Awareness and commitment can both be challenging, but maybe the hardest part is to develop relationships. Relationships are the heart of everything we do. When we sing “all are welcome in this place,” we might think of this building or of the church in general, but what if “this place” also means “in our hearts”?
Tisby says, “…you cannot pursue true racial justice without authentic relationships with people who are different from you.”
Where do we encounter people who are different from us? It might be at Dillons or Walmart. At school or at work. Maybe online or in our neighborhood or at events. Wherever and whenever we encounter people, there’s an opportunity to make a connection, and an opportunity to develop relationships in which we let people into our hearts.
Tisby points out that as little children we were better at this. Three-year-olds will walk up to someone and ask, “Will you be my friend?” And what happens? They make friends. We stopped doing that as we get older because it feels weird and awkward, but maybe we need to be ok with being weird and awkward. The Syrophoenician woman persisted with Jesus despite the weirdness, and experienced the healing power of God’s unlimited love.
Maybe it’s not just minds that are like parachutes. Maybe hearts are like parachutes, too. They function better when they are open to God’s love and the Holy Spirit’s power to help us carry that love into new places and with new people.
Thanks be to God.
 Tolstoy, Leo. “Where Love Is, God Is.” The Greatest Short Stories of Leo Tolstoy . Samaira Book Publishers. Kindle Edition.
 Tisby, Jemar (2021-01-04T22:58:59). How to Fight Racism. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
 Tisby, Jemar. How to Fight Racism (p. 107). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.