Theology at the Theatre: The Sound of Music
I’ve talked to you before about the first sermon I ever preached, back when I was a college student, and I preached at my childhood church on the parable of the rich fool, the parable where the wealthy man decides to build bigger barns to keep all of his stuff, where Jesus warns us against believing our lives are all about our stuff. But although that was the first sermon I ever preached, it wasn’t the first sermon I ever wrote. I had a written a sermon a few years earlier, while I was in high school. That same pastor who nurtured my call to ministry and let me preach while I was in college had also allowed me to plan an entire worship service a few years before for the youth of the church to lead. I organized everything, and assigned all the parts, and I wrote the sermon – I just assigned the sermon to someone else to preach. I was far too nervous to do the preaching myself. So I wrote the sermon for my friend Becca to deliver. I don’t have a copy anymore, I don’t think, of that sermon, which I remember was handwritten, not typed, unless I tucked it somewhere in the pages of my journal from that time. But I remember my text: It was this passage that we’ve shared today from Philippians 4. And I chose it in particular because I was so taken by verse 8: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” See, I grew up in the era of the great movie Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and the word “excellent” was used frequently in a slang style to denote everything that was particularly awesome and wonderful. And the idea that the Bible was telling us we should spend our time thinking about “excellent” things was very appealing to my young mind.
Indeed, Paul does tell the Philippians to be grounded in thinking about excellent and praiseworthy things in their lives, and his short letter is our focus for today as we conclude our series “Theology at the Theatre” with a look at The Sound of Music. The apostle Paul visited Philippi, a city in what was the Eastern part of Macedonia, now Greece, during what we call his second missionary journey, somewhere around the year 50 AD. The church in Philippi was one of the earliest established Christian communities. Paul’s letter to them is written some ten years after his first visit to them. The letter is written while Paul is in prison, although since Paul was imprisoned many times during his ministry, it is hard to determine during which time in custody he wrote these words. Some scholars, however, point to the awareness of his own mortality in Philippians to suggest that Paul wrote this during one of his later imprisonments before he was executed.
The word “rejoice” appears 7 times in the four short chapters of Philippians, which is a pretty high rate of frequency, especially compared with the rest of the New Testament. It isn’t just a nice word choice, it’s a definite theme that Paul chooses – he calls us to rejoice. This call is notable because Philippians is also filled with a deep awareness on Paul’s part that the span of his life is probably short. He reflects on his sufferings, on his work in Christ, on his love for the Philippians, and on the aim and purpose of his work. While some of Paul’s others letters are instructional, chiding, teaching, Philippians is more of a letter to loved ones whom Paul misses and from whom Paul receives comfort and encouragement as much as he gives it.
He tells the Philippians, “For [Christ’s] sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him. (2:8b-9a) I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (2:14) Grounded in this sentiment, in this longing, and in this reflection on his suffering in service to sharing the message of Jesus, we come to our reading for today.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Paul does not mean his words to be meaningless or trite, not filler or fluff. Truly, despite the adversity he has faced as a follower of Jesus, he is full of joy, and calls others followers of Christ to the same deep joy. “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Paul says he rejoices because of the consistent concern and support the Philippians have shown for him. Indeed, they are one of the few places from whom Paul has accepted financial support for his work in ministry. But, Paul concludes, he has learned to be content with whatever he has. He has known what it is to have little, and known what it is to have plenty. And in whatever circumstance he finds himself, Paul concludes, “I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me.”
Today we turn our attention to The Sound of Music to think about a life of rejoicing in the midst of great struggle. The Sound of Music is a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical based on the memoir of Maria von Trapp, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. The story is set in Austria on the eve of the Anschluss in 1938, the annexation of Austria by Germany on the brink of World War II. The musical opened in 1959, and it was adapted into the classic movie in 1965.
At the start of The Sound of Music, Maria is a postulant (questioner) at the Nonnberg Abbey, preparing to become a nun. She sings about regretting leaving the beautiful hills where she was brought up. She doesn’t seem to be fitting in to life at the Abbey. She and the Mother Abbess speak together, talking together about the things that bring them joy when life is difficult. (“My Favorite Things”) Mother Abbess tells Maria that she should spend some time outside the abbey to decide whether she is really ready for the monastic life. She will serve as governess to the seven children of a widower, Captain Georg von Trapp. He and Maria grow close and fall in love, even as she helps him heal his relationship with his children. But she’s frightened by her feelings, and heads back to the abbey. She says that she is ready to take her vows and become a nun, “but the Mother Abbess realizes that she is running away from her feelings. She tells her to face the Captain and discover if they love each other, and tells her to search for and find the life she was meant to live.” Of course, as all this is happening, we also see the rise of Nazism in the background, and watch Maria and the Captain resist being caught up in Austria becoming a part of the Nazi regime, instead fleeing the country secretly.
The song that Betsy sang for us today, “Climb Every Mountain,” comes both at the beginning and the end of the musical, words that encourage Maria to follow her true calling, even if that means not become a nun, and words that reflect the von Trapp family’s calling to resist the rise of Nazism, even if it means leaving their homeland. The lyrics are simple but poignant: “Climb every mountain. Search high and low. Follow every byway. Every path you know. Climb every mountain. Ford every stream. Follow every rainbow 'till you find your dream: A dream that will need all the love you can give every day of your life for as long as you live.”
The real life Maria von Trapp reflected in her autobiography that she was sometimes mad at God, even on her wedding day, because she truly had felt called to become a nun, and it was hard for her to reconcile the new path of life she was taking with what she first believed to be God’s call. But, she said, she ended up experiencing more love than she had ever known, and she believed that she was following God’s will for her life. Her years at the abbey, she said, "were really necessary to get my twisted character and my overgrown self-will cut down to size." The Sound of Music is a fairly light-hearted musical, but the real-life events on which the musical is based were times of true hardship and struggle for Maria, her family, her nation, the world. Maria remained grounded in her faith, committed to following God’s will, and able to find deep joy in life in the midst of everything she experienced.
What about you? Is your life filled with joy? Paul calls us to rejoice in the Lord always. How can we manage such a thing? This past week in our Disciple Bible Study, we talked about the book of Galatians and the freedom we experience in Christ that enables us to live a life of love and service, not out of obligation, but in response to God’s love and grace at work in us. I shared with the class words that are a part of the prayer of confession in our communion liturgy. We don’t often use the full formal liturgy, but the language in meaningful and insightful. We pray, “Free us for joyful obedience through Jesus Christ our Lord.” That phrase “joyful obedience” can seem to be a contradiction. But actually, it is so descriptive of the life in Christ of which Paul speaks. Despite challenges of every kind, Paul lives a life full of rejoicing because he has such confidence that he is following God’s will, living out the gospel of Christ, and grounding his life in the most meaningful things he can. He knows his true purpose, his true calling, and that brings him a deep satisfaction, a deep joy that transcends the sufferings and struggles he encounters.
This week, we celebrate Thanksgiving. I hope that we are giving thanks, rejoicing for our life in Christ in ways that are deeper than giving thanks for the delicious food we might eat, as yummy as pumpkin pie might be. May our hearts be filled with the joy that comes from knowing that our lives are built on the solid foundation of a life of discipleship in Christ. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”