This morning, I’m remembering a scene from “The Sound of Music.”
It’s an early scene, just after Fraulein Maria arrives at the Von Trapp estate.
Maria meets Captain Von Trapp, whom you’ll recall is profoundly stern at the beginning, and clearly not impressed with this nun who has shown up with her straw hat and her guitar to serve as the new governess for his thoroughly awful brood of children.
She doesn’t seem destined for success.
But be that as it may, she’s whom he’s got, at least right then, and so he summons the children to meet her.
And you’ll remember that he does this with the help of a bosun’s whistle.
He blows the whistle and the children all march down to the entrance hall on command.
You’ll also remember, of course, that Maria is immediately and permanently not into the whistle, which she makes abundantly clear.
What’s never said, though, is that the captain, for all his stern exterior, is a man still deeply grieving the loss of his first wife, the mother of his children.
What soon becomes clear is that their misbehavior is tied to their own grief, and also to the fact that their father is too lost and sad to be the kind of presence they so desperately need him to be for them.
What’s happened is that he has fallen back on the training of a different kind of world—the world of the Imperial Navy—the world of bosun’s whistles, and schedules and structure, and strict orders followed without delay.
It isn’t working. That becomes obvious within minutes. But it’s all he has. It’s the only thing he knows to do. So that’s what he’s doing.
There’s a proverb that goes, “To the man who only has a hammer in his tool belt, everything in the world looks like a nail.”
And that’s kind of the Captain’s situation.
Acting like a naval captain is the only thing he’s got in his tool belt.
O.k., so I hope I didn’t just ruin “The Sound of Music” for you.
But I think most of us know what that can be like—that sense that life has thrown something at us that we’re really not equipped to deal with.
Let me just say that when that happens, there can be this impulse to dig into our old routines with a vengeance and hope that, somehow, they’ll turn out to be the right approach to the situation—the right tool for the job.
Of course, we know that it rarely turns out to be so.
In most cases, we have to learn something new—we have to learn how to live in a new way.
It’s not easy, and when life is hard, it can feel as if the last thing we have energy for is learning to do something differently.
Someone once told me that one of the hardest things about his wife’s stroke—and it was hard on both of them—was that now he had to do all the cooking.
Maybe that sounds selfish. It’s not.
He was quick to explain that it was hard to say who had it worse: his wife, who had to give up doing something she loved and did wonderfully well, or him, who hated standing at the stove and could barely boil a hot dog.
“I was no good at this back when I was in my prime,” he said. “What on earth happens now?”
And that’s really the question, isn’t it?
When life takes a turn: “What on earth happens now?”
There are no easy answers to that.
But much of the time, part of the answer, anyway, is that we learn to live in a new way.
Over time, we learn to do things differently.
More broadly, we learn also to find meaning, to take joy, to feel gratitude and delight in new ways, and often in smaller, more immediate things—in the great blessing of a good day: a day when our taste buds, or our sense of balance, or our energy seem to be working.
We see the miracle of how we are strangely and wonderfully made, as the psalmist puts it.
That’s not everything, of course. But it’s a good start.
And when life gets challenging, I think we find a new appreciation for the good start whenever we manage to catch one.
We see it for the gift it surely is, and always was.
This helps me think about this morning’s reading—this story about the centurion from Luke’s Gospel.
Because for starters, there is a lot in the story that I wish I knew more about.
For example, I’m perplexed about this centurion—that is, a Roman soldier, I assume—who has decided to live in occupied territory, among a people who profoundly hated their occupation, as occupied peoples tend to do.
After all, you don’t hear of Colin Powell deciding to retire in Kuwait, now do you?
I’m also fascinated by the centurion’s even more profoundly counter-cultural decision to be a good neighbor, even to the tune of building a local synagogue, when he himself was not Jewish, nor likely to convert to Judaism.
This isn’t a case of someone buying a whole lot of land and then building a big fence around it so they can just hole up in their compound in peace and solitude for the remainder of their days.
And the best I can do with it is to say that something must have happened to this man.
Something must have shaken him out of the typical flight-path for a centurion.
Army duty in Ancient Judea was not generally considered a primo kind of assignment. Far from it.
Army duty in Ancient Judea was hard time, the kind of assignment that made you harder, more weary, more guarded. You saw things and those things stayed with you.
Yet here he is, staying on when he had the choice to go, and he’s making a life, and proving in his own small way that not all Romans were cut from the same cloth.
His army buddies must have thought he was crazy.
All I can say is that something must have happened to him—something that made the old answers, the army answers, the Roman answers no longer really work for him.
But you know, it’s not as if you can just decide to forget the army.
That being the case, it probably should not surprise us that he falls back on the army’s ways when he sends word to Jesus about his servant needing healing.
Now note it well: Jesus is surprised and moved when the centurion follows up by saying that the Master does not need to come himself, that he is used to giving and following orders, and that Jesus should just give the order for his servant to be well and so it would be.
His faith is moving. It’s surprising even to Jesus.
But where Captain Von Trapp fell back on that bosun’s whistle as a way of hanging on to what he knows in a time of great uncertainty, for the centurion, something else seems to be going on.
Make no mistake: he still sees the world in an army kind of way. Of course he does. How could he not?
But what’s more important is that he has a new understanding of the chain of command.
He has a new understanding of the orders he has been charged to follow.
Within the world of the centurion’s disappointments and wounds, something new has started to happen.
And he has found a way to bless it. He has found a way to recognize that, in all truth, this new life is how God is blessing him now.
The story is too short for us to ever know for sure, but in my version, the servant is not the only one who’s found healing here. The servant’s not the only one who has found new life, or who receives a new awareness of the gift of each new day.
And the point that’s worth making here is that you and I can find it, too. You and I are being offered that same gift.
It isn’t hating life to say that the kingdoms of this world so often seem to frustrate and disappoint us.
It’s to say that the Kingdom of God is all around us—that new life, and new purposes, and new gratitude are all being offered to us, and that Jesus himself is here to testify that God wants to share them with us urgently.
God shares them with us in the presence of his own son, who came to join our lives so that we might finally see that we are all part of the life of God.
That’s the path forward. That’s the healing he offers us.
In all our fears, in all our shortcomings, nevertheless he comes.
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace,” it says in the Book of Isaiah.
Jesus comes to bring peace for heart and mind and soul. The peace of God. The peace of new life.
The hills are alive with the sound of his music.