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22 Mar 2009

“‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up so that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.’” (John 3:14-15)        In the name …

I just read an article about a young cello player who made her debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  People who know about these kinds of things say that she plays with passion, intensity and creativity.  Since I am far from a musician, I can understand the first two qualities of passion and intensity, but what does playing with creativity mean?  I never progressed beyond a very simple ability to play the piano.  I had to struggle to get my fingers to hit the notes on the page in front of me, never mind trying to hit them in anything like the proper rhythm.  I was in the Seminary with John Mack who is now Bp. John Mack.  He’s a very good musician.  When I used to play around at the piano, it would be torment for him.  He couldn’t listen.  He’d have to leave the room.  So I have a very great respect for people who can play an instrument well, which to me with all of my musical limitations means reading the music and playing the notes.  Now you can play those notes with passion and intensity, but again how do you play them creatively? 

Back to my young cellist.  She’s a soloist playing in concert with an entire orchestra.  She follows the conductor just like they do. She has to play the notes that are written and stay in sync with the conductor and all the other musicians.  How do you do that with creativity?  I can appreciate her talent.  As a matter of fact, I’ve included a beautiful piece she has recorded in today’s website-sermon. Listen to her and hear what creativity sounds like. 


She has spoken of becoming so engaged in her music that it swallows her up.  She once was playing a very dramatic piece with the New York Philharmonic and she became lost in the music.  Everything was technically perfect, but on top of that the music took over her entire personality.  She forgot that she was on stage and in front of hundreds of people.  Her playing took her somewhere else.  She said that when it was over she had a hard time snapping out of that cocoon and had to force herself to stand up and take her bows.  I think that’s what creativity means.  It’s not only playing the notes with technical perfection.  It’s somehow letting them speak through you and then making them your own.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus makes reference to a complicated story from the Old Testament.  The people of Israel have sinned against God and as their punishment they are plagued by venomous snakes.  They ask Moses to pray to God for forgiveness and healing, and God tells Moses to fashion a bronze snake and to raise it on a pole so that anyone who looks upon this image will be healed.  That’s all well and good, but the story of the statue doesn’t end there.  About 400 years later, it reappears in the biblical story.  King Hezekiah of Jerusalem orders the statue to be destroyed because it has been turned into an idol. The people of Israel after 400 years remembered its story of healing and power, but they forgot the God who invested the image with healing and power.  The statue itself became the god; it became an idol.  Hezekiah in his attempt to rid Israel of all idols had to order the statue destroyed.

The people Jesus was speaking with that day would have remembered both parts of the story.  The obvious comparison of this story is to Jesus’ prediction that He will be raised up on the cross so that all who look to Him will be saved, but the less obvious comparison can’t be ignored either.  The statue lost its meaning when the people forgot to associate it with God.  What could this mean when Jesus uses this story and image to help explain the cross?  Just prior to this morning’s Gospel selection, Jesus complains that many people can’t understand the basic lessons of His teaching so how are they going to appreciate the complicated lessons of salvation?  And then Jesus makes reference to the bronze statue of the snake.  This is then followed by that famous biblical passage:  “‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son,’” (3:16a) which basically means, “For God so loved the world that He gave-up His only Son.”  The cross is primarily about the love of God for us all.  He gives-up His Son, He gives-up Himself, for us.  If you think about this, it means that God loves us more than He loves Himself.  In the words of Jesus it means:  “For God so loved the world that He gave-up me!”  And Jesus is a willing sacrifice because He as the Son of God is willing to be given-up.  The cross is about God’s unconditional love for us.  Take that away and the cross loses its meaning.

Let’s go back, though, to Jesus’ reference to the statue crafted by Moses.  It became an idol, a false god, a replacement of God.  The people remembered its power to heal, but they forgot that through it God was the healer.  They wanted to separate what was given from the giver.  Was this part of Jesus’ lesson too?  Was this message also why Jesus referred to that bronze statue?  Is Jesus warning us that if we separate the cross from the message of God and His love, then the cross loses its power?  Everybody knows the symbol of the cross.  It has become our universal designation.  From ancient times when it was scratched as two intersecting lines onto the graves of Christians, the cross has summed-up all that is our faith.  But what if we recognize the cross of God and shy away from the love of God?  A relationship with God?  What does this do to the cross?  Why did Jesus talk about the statue of the serpent?

There’s a difference between technically playing all the notes correctly and being creative, being drawn right into the music, overwhelmed by it, lost in it.  That’s the story of the young cellist.  And I wonder if that’s part of the reason why Jesus makes the comparison to the statue of the bronze serpent?  Is He warning us about trying to keep the cross at a safe distance?  Keep it technical not creative?  Not connecting it with “For God so loved the world”?  Trying to take what we can from the cross, but not letting ourselves be taken over by the cross?  There is a difference and Lent gives us the time and opportunity to think about it, and for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)


Fr. Randy Calvo


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