Sunday, November 15th, 2015 – 25th Sunday after Pentecost
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scriptures: I Samuel 1:4-20, I Samuel 3:1-10
Hymns: “Give to the Winds Your Fears”, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”, “We Are God’s People”, “Here I Am, Lord”, “Draw Me Nearer”, “We Come As Guests Invited”, “These Thousand Hills”
Speak, for Your Servant Is Listening
I know that I have, before, discussed the latter stages of my call to ministry – how I was encouraged to become a minister by camp counselors in high school, how I would later be further encouraged by my campus pastor in college, and how years of serving myself as a camp counselor would lead to my eventual commitment to attending seminary. You’ve also heard about how it was in seminary that I discerned the call to also serve in the US Navy as a chaplain.
But what I’ve never talked about is what planted the seeds for both ministry and chaplaincy very early on in my life. Yes, those events in high school, college, and seminary, were all the final strokes that led to the decisions, but the initial spark came from early in my childhood, and was provided by one single person: Father John Francis Patrick Mulcahy, Society of Jesus, Captain, US Army (fictional).
Some of you laugh, and some of you need an explanation.
Father Mulcahy was the chaplain for the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, as portrayed on the TV show M*A*S*H. He was a kind-hearted – if somewhat naïve – pastor to the lunatics that made up the surgical and nursing staff of the 4077th, and he repeatedly demonstrated his dedication to them both as his flock and as fellow soldiers. Only once in eleven seasons did Father Mulcahy demonstrate a lack of judgment that caused him to take on a rather selfish mission, and even that was an intentional trip to the battlefront that would allow him more credibility with combat troops so that he could subsequently create closer relationships with them.
M*A*S*H entered syndication two years before I was born, even though new episodes would continue to run for another two years AFTER my birth. When I got to be five or six years old, my parents started letting me watch it with them – episodes aired every night on KPHO, Channel 5. They shielded me from the first few seasons, featuring degenerates and adulterers such as Trapper John McIntyre and Frank Burns, but let me watch the later seasons, once the show transitioned into being a more serious and, quite frankly, now that I’ve seen those first few seasons, a more mature show.
Father Mulcahy made me think two things very early on in life: one, that maybe I’d like to be a minister someday, and two, that maybe I’d like to do that in the military someday. After all, I saw my dad come home from work every day in his US Army class B uniform – if he was in the Army, why couldn’t I be?
Now, obviously, later in life, I would come to see the error of my ways and opt to go with the mighty mighty US Navy, but that fictional Army chaplain is where the first inkling of a desire to serve in ministry and the military came from.
Looking back on that, nearly thirty years later, there is, of course, no doubt in my mind NOW that that was God speaking to me through the person of Father Mulcahy, saying, “Jimmy, someday you’re going to enter into service in my name.” When I was a child, though, I thought like a child and reasoned like a child, and as it turned out, I didn’t have a prophet named Eli to point me in the right direction.
Samuel, on the other hand, did have that guide. One almost has to imagine, too, that Samuel was destined for great things right from the very beginning. He was, in a sense, the miracle child of Elkanah and Hannah. Hannah had spent her entire life and marriage up until the beginning of the book of I Samuel barren, unable to conceive a child. In those days, that was seen as a mark of shame. If you were unable to bear a child, then according to Bronze Age Hebrew society, you had been abandoned by God.
Of course, nobody wants to live with a mark of shame. And so, one year, when Hannah and Elkanah made their annual pilgrimage to offer their sacrifices to God, Hannah prostrated herself before the altar of the Lord, begging for a child and offering that child to the service of God should she be blessed with one. And the high priest, Eli, saw her praying to the Lord, and immediately saw that she was a devout woman of God and blessed her.
Wait a second, no, that’s not what happened at all. Actually, Eli thought she was drunk.
Do you realize how many times that happens in the Bible? There are several occasions in the Scriptures when people of faith are either praying to or exclaiming the good news of God, and other people around them assume their drunk. The most famous of these, of course, is on the day of Pentecost, when Peter had to point out that it’s unlikely that Christ’s apostles were going to be drunk at 9:00 AM.
I don’t know. Maybe the powers-that-be in the holy Scriptures just had a fascination with getting intoxicated and praying. Whatever the case, Eli told Hannah to put away her wine.
Now, a few weeks ago, I had mentioned that my mom is a woman of strong opinion and strong will. Had she been on the steps of a church praying before the Lord that she would have a child, and a priest had come and told her to put away her wine, that priest probably would’ve found out what it’s like to get an uppercut from an irritated Iowan woman. However, Hannah, being neither strong-willed nor Iowan, reacted to Eli with understanding, saying that no, she wasn’t drunk, she just wanted a child, and she was willing to dedicate that child to the service of God.
At least, that’s what the author of I Samuel would like us to believe. For all we know, Hannah gave Eli a piece of her mind before explaining that she just wanted a gosh darn kid!
The Scriptures go on to tell us that after Samuel was born and reached a certain age, he went into the service of God, serving under Eli, the high priest of the tabernacle at Shiloh. And that’s when things got a little weird.
Now, I want those of you with kids who are about, say 8-11 years old to imagine what would happen if they were lying in bed one night and they heard a voice calling their name. The way I see it, there are three options: 1) God is speaking to them, 2) you’re speaking to them, 3) you need to go outside and take care of the creep on the ladder outside their window who’s speaking to them.
Hopefully not the third option.
So you have the boy, Samuel, sleeping in the tabernacle, having spent the day working for God via Eli. As he’s lying in bed, trying to drift off to sleep, he hears a voice calling his name. Again, the options for Samuel are not many: either his dad, Elkanah, randomly showed up for a late night visit, Eli’s calling out for him in the middle of the night, or God’s talking to him. Well, it was pretty unlikely that Elkanah would just show up for a visit in Shiloh in the middle of the night, and as the beginning of chapter 3 says, “God did not speak much in those days,” so Samuel probably ruled out that one out of hand as well. That just left Eli.
Eli, of course, was not calling Samuel, and it took Samuel traipsing into his bedroom three times to ask what he wanted before he realized exactly what was going on and told Samuel to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening,” the next time he heard the voice.
I’ve no doubt that Samuel was probably a little confused by these instructions, but he did it nonetheless, and when he returned to bed and heard the voice again, he answered back to God: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
Samuel then spent the rest of his life serving as a prophet for the Lord, speaking to God and taking the word of the Lord to the people of Israel. Not bad for a kid who heard voices talking to him while he tried to go to sleep.
It’s really kind of too bad that we don’t really recognize this sort of calling to ministry in kids today. When a child says, “I want to be a minister,” too often we say, “Oh, that’s adorable,” but then dismiss them, saying that they need to grow up and mature before they can make that decision. And while they do indeed need to grow and mature before they can actually begin the process of theological education, if they feel that call early on in life, then we need to recognize it and nurture it so that when the time comes, they are actually ready to go to seminary, rather than being thrust unknown and unprepared from college into graduate school.
The Sunday I left to go to Oregon on active duty back in September, I preached on how Jesus insisted that we let the little children come to Him, for it is when we have faith like a child that we can truly find our way to God. When children recognize a calling from God to go into ministry, they may not fully understand what it means yet, but I have no doubt that they have the faith to know why they’re being called.
Thinking back on it, I can’t imagine that Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds, who were M*A*S*H’s executive producers, nor William Christopher, who portrayed Father Mulcahy, had any intent that the character would serve as an inspiration for children to think about being a minister. And yet, I’m sure that I can’t possibly be the only one who felt that tug on his life. It is in those unexpected places that you are most likely to hear the voice of God calling out to you. When you come to realize who it is that you’re hearing, that is when you reply, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening,” for it is in those moments that the course of your life may be set forth.