Growing up a Methodist preacher’s kid, we moved. Every three years, just like clockwork: new church, new town, new school; hoping for new friends, dreading the new unspoken rules of this community. In the midst of all the moving, I had two places that did not change, that held steady: the homes of my paternal and maternal grandparents. We closed Grandma Edna’s house just after her death in 1988. Grandma Flossie’s house remained.
At the heart of her house stood the kitchen table, a beautiful round oak table supported by a thick pedestal and four protruding legs. At that table, the family gathered regularly to reconstitute and renew itself. At that table, no one looked suspiciously at the preacher’s kid. At that table, I could be myself.
As long as I can remember, oilcloth and thick padding covered the table top so the bowls and platters of steaming food and sweating glasses of iced tea would not mar the finish. A glass pitcher full of spoons served as the centerpiece, sitting alongside a small jar of my grandfather’s toothpicks and the saccharine my grandmother used to sweeten tea.
At that table, I learned what it means to belong to our family. I learned that my family shares what we receive in good and gracious ways. And I learned what it means to be entrusted with a mission, what it means to be sent.
My grandparents had a neighbor, Mrs. Sides. I never really understood if her husband abandoned her or if he died. I did see her struggle to make ends meet, to provide for herself and her son. The Sides lived in a terribly dilapidated house. I found it scary. My grandparents seemed not to notice. Instead, they saw to her care and keeping in ways she could accept and remain an equal partner in the friendship.
Often, after dinner (which means lunch in Southern), my grandmother would say, “Gina Ruth, take this bowl of butterbeans down to Mrs. Sides for their supper. She didn’t plant any this year, and I know she loves butterbeans. Tell her not to worry about that bowl. It will turn up back here with something good in it.”
And off I’d go, down the path by my grandparent’s garden, left down the alley, right at the sidewalk, two blocks down. Knocking on her screen door, I would hear Mrs. Sides greeting before I could see her. “Well, Gina Ruth, what a nice surprise. What are you doing here?”
“My grandma sent me,” I’d say. “She sent me with some butterbeans.”
Being sent from my grandmother’s table felt like important work, that even I, a young girl, could be trusted to do in a good and gracious way. Being sent from her table—with my granddaddy’s kiss of blessing—I began to see that I had a place in God’s world and in the way God does things. Being sent from my grandmother’s table, I had a chance to practice the work God would one day call me to embrace for a lifetime.
Our God is a sending God: who “gets the world that” lives in the divine imagination by sending people out on missions—to do a faithful and loving thing for the sake of those whom God loves. (Willimon) God sends Abraham and Sarah, Judah and Jeremiah, a Samaritan woman and Paul to speak God’s newness, God’s word of challenge, to live as faith and hope for those most desperately in need of God’s presence.
And God sends Jesus to enlist others in the work of expanding the reality of heaven in the midst of the stuff of earth. And something about Jesus makes him send people, too, making progress in the world when people like you and me agree to be sent and to be spent for the purposes of holy love.
Elisha, prophet of Yahweh, sends Naaman to wash in the Jordan in order to be healed; seven times in order to be made whole. The mission’s instructions, delivered by Elisha’s messenger, offend and enrage the great and powerful soldier.
He turns to leave, but not before insulting the very water that, according to Elisha, holds the promise of relief from his skin disease; hope of new and restored life.
Naaman’s servants intervene. In an ironic moment, they look at the proud man and say, “What the prophet says is not that hard! Go and wash. Be sent.”
Here’s the rub. To be sent means to yield; to surrender—at least for a time—one’s own pride of place, position, power in favor of another’s; to trust God is present in the yielding to guide, direct, provide. To Naaman, decorated military office, favorite of his king, surrender is an unwelcome prospect.
And yet to surrender does not mean to give up. Surrender, at its root, means to give back. Elisha invites Naaman to give back to God that which never truly belonged to Naaman in the first place: prestige, position, power. Elisha invites Naaman to yield in order to be made whole.
Naaman yields; and when he does, “His skin was healed, it was like the skin of a little baby. [Naaman] was as good as new.” And Naaman knew there was no God “anywhere on earth other than the God of Israel.” (Peterson)
Call it baptism, conversion, resurrection. Naaman’s healing goes straight through the skin, all the way to the heart; filling him with gratitude, overwhelming him with joy, humbling and surprising him all at the same time.
Human and humility: they spring from the same root. Yielding to God’s loving purpose our hearts begin to soften; becoming hearts that God can shape into a new creation; pliable and sendable, human and humble, eternal and everlasting. (Mogabgab, Flood)
In her book Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott describes her own experience of yielding, surrender, and the holy humbling that births new creation. Like Naaman, Lamott had a certainty about her place in the world. Well-educated, affluent, self sufficient, Lamott’s parents raised her with a sense of duty to save the world. “God forbid,” Lamott says, “that someone would think I need help. Lamott’s give help.”
Then came the alcohol, the drugs; life sinking into dependence, desperation, disarray. A reality she considered appalling began to rise up. She felt herself drawn to church. “I thought about my life,” she writes, “and my brilliant hilarious progressive friends. I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen. I turned to the wall and said out loud ‘I would rather die’ … One week later … I went back to church … so hung over that I couldn’t stand up … and this time I stayed for the sermon, which … [seemed about as useful] as someone trying to convince me of the existence of extraterrestrials, but the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape. It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in the bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to the feeling—and it washed over me.” (Lamott)
Go and wash in the Jordan seven times. Healing will come, and wholeness beyond imagining. It takes all one’s strength and all one’s yielding. Go! Be sent!
After calling and sending the twelve, Jesus calls and sends seventy more, sending them out with some serious traveling orders. Expect danger. Pack light. Don’t get hung up on food or politeness. Speak peace. Proclaim God’s nearness. Tend those who hear and receive. Leave those who do not. Go! Be sent.
Luke’s story pulses with urgency. Jesus already moves where God sends him, pointing his face towards Jerusalem. The seventy are sent to precede Christ’s face. By their obedience the seventy create a space and a love for God’s reign in many places yet to receive Jesus. They preach and heal in his Spirit; live as they have in his company. They return elated, jubilant!
How we understand Jesus’ response has everything to do with where emphasis gets placed in their excited reporting. “Lord, in your name, even demons submit to us.” “Lord, in your name, even demons submit to us.”
Choosing the latter, more generous interpretation, let us assume the seventy return, successful beyond their wildest imaginings and humbled by their success. What Jesus says flows from a place of tenderness. “See what I have given you! Safe passage as you walk on snakes and scorpions and protection from every assault from the enemy. No one can put a hand on you. All the same, the great triumph is … not what you do for God, but what God does for you—that’s the agenda for rejoicing.” (Peterson)
On this very day as the earth spins and morning dawns in country after country, all around the globe, we join millions who gather at the table Jesus prepares. Here we learn what it means to belong to the family of God. Here we learn what it means to share what we receive in good and gracious ways. Here we learn what it means to be entrusted with a mission; to be sent in the name of the family that bears his name: to wash, to yield, to be overwhelmed, to go before the face of Christ, and to take a bowl of butterbeans to the neighbors.
These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication. —Gina Gilland Campbell
Eugene Peterson, The Message/Remix, NavPress, 2003
William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 41, #3, Year C
Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, Pantheon Books, 1999, p. 49–50
Kathleen Flood, lectures, Companions in Ministry, Nashville, Tenn., April 7, 2005