Fr. James' Lectionary

The Lectionary is both a reading program for completing all of Holy Scripture on a one year schedule, and a daily comment on a portion of the day's reading wedded to a poem to give an added perspective on the theme.

Location: Amherst, Virginia, United States

Saturday, April 16, 2005

The Promise of God

Daily Readings
Psalm 66 + Numbers 13 + Deuteronomy 6 + Matthew 22

Verse for the Day
But in truth God has heard me;
he has attended to the voice of my prayer. Psalm 66:17

Daily Text Numbers 13:21-27
21 So they went up and spied out the land from the wilderness of Zin to Rehob, near Lebo-hamath. 22They went up into the Negeb, and came to Hebron; and Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, the Anakites, were there. (Hebron was built seven years before Zoan in Egypt.) 23And they came to the Wadi Eshcol, and cut down from there a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole between two of them. They also brought some pomegranates and figs. 24That place was called the Wadi Eshcol, because of the cluster that the Israelites cut down from there. 25At the end of forty days they returned from spying out the land.
26 And they came to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation of the Israelites in the wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh; they brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land. 27And they told him, "We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.

The Promise of God
Spies! These twelve creep up through the hill country from the Wilderness of Zin in the northern Negev to the mountain pass north of Damascus known as Lebo-Hamath. From this route they would have been able to see far reaches of the land. Whether there were one or two groups spying out the land, the editors wrote of it as one and we will look at it that way. Today this land has much rich agricultural land because of irrigation. In that time, presumably, there was little or no irrigation and yet it was part of the Fertile Crescent known from time immemorial as a rich and productive land. The hills may well have been covered by forests, the valleys well-watered and the coastal plain tended by Canaanite farmers. It was fully settled by several peoples. War was an accepted means of the migration of peoples and Jacob’s successors knew that they would have to take the land by force. Today the hills are barren, desert wastes, and even the river valleys require irrigation to make them productive. It may well be that Israel’s settlement there later stripped the land of its vegetative cover and turned it into a desert-like place. But Fertile Crescent is burned in my mind, as is the report of the spies that this was a land that flowed with milk and honey. That may mean simply goats and bees, but more likely it was a phrase that conjured up an Eden of a place. The idea of one cluster of grapes requiring two men and a pole to carry it is mind-boggling. Still it required vision to see past the strong settlements, and an armed and prosperous people to the promise of God. Only Caleb, and later Joshua, had that vision.

The Bunch of Grapes
George Herbert

Joy, I did lock thee up: but some bad man
Hath let thee out again:
And now, me thinks, I am where I began
Seven years ago: one vogue and vain,
One air of thoughts usurps my brain.
I did toward Canaan draw; but now I am
Brought back to the Red sea, the sea of shame.

For as the Jews of old by God’s command
Traveled, and saw no town:
So now each Christian hath his journeys spanned:
Their story pens and sets us down.
A single deed is small renown.
God’s works are wide, and let in future times;
His ancient justice overflows our crimes.

Then have we too our guardian fires and clouds;
Our Scripture-dew drops fast:
We have our sands and serpents, tents and shrouds;
Alas! our murmurings come not last.
But where’s the cluster? where’s the taste
Of mine inheritance? Lord, if I must borrow,
Let me as well take up their joy, as sorrow.

But can he want the grape, who hath the wine?
I have their fruit and more.
Blessed be God, who prospered Noah’s vine,
And made it bring forth grapes good store.
But much more him I must adore,
Who of the law’s sour juice sweet wine did make,
Even God himself, being pressed for my sake.

Friday, April 15, 2005


Daily Readings
Psalm 65 + Numbers 12 + Deuteronomy 5 + Matthew 21

Verse for the Day
You must follow exactly the path that the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you are to possess. Deuteronomy 5:33

Daily Text Numbers 12:3-8
3Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth.
4 Suddenly the LORD said to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, "Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting." So the three of them came out. 5Then the LORD came down in a pillar of cloud, and stood at the entrance of the tent, and called Aaron and Miriam; and they both came forward. 6And he said, "Hear my words: When there are prophets among you, I the LORD make myself known to them in visions; I speak to them in dreams. 7Not so with my servant Moses; he is entrusted with all my house. 8With him I speak face to face-- clearly, not in riddles; and he beholds the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?"

Just what does it mean to be humble? It does not mean always taking a back seat. It does mean not arrogating to oneself the privileges and perquisites of another. Humility and meekness are often mentioned together as they have been with Moses (Exodus 3:10-13). To be humble is to have a modest opinion of oneself, though truthful, without a loss of self-respect and dignity. So to humble oneself is not to be humiliated, but modest and meek. So it was with Moses. It must not have been a family trait, for Aaron and Miriam seem not to have inherited it.

The tribute is the thing: “he is entrusted with all my house. With him I speak face to face—clearly, not in riddles; and he beholds the form of the LORD.” This tribute is about relationship, and oh, what it would mean to have such a relationship with God. The idea that Moses saw God brings us to the theme of the vision of God once again. In Deuteronomy 4:12 the word for ‘form’ is the same as it is here. In Deuteronomy the people were reminded that they heard the voice of God, but did not see his form. Here Moses, in the very words of God, sees his form. How this can be melded with the prohibition of seeing God in Exodus 33 is hard to say. Generally, the rabbis concluded that Moses saw everything but God’s face. And yet this passage in Numbers 12 says that God speaks with him face to face or mouth to mouth. The latter is a Jewish translation that for them means that Moses was directly inspired by YHWH, that is, the very breath of God was within him. It may also be that differing traditions reflected within the Torah understood the vision of God differently. However, we ‘see’ it, pun intended, Moses and God were intimates, companions.

The Blades of Grass
Stephen Crane

In Heaven,
Some little blades of grass
Stood before God.
“What did you do?”
Then all save one of the little blades
Began eagerly to relate
The merits of their lives.
This one stayed a small way behind,
Presently, God said,
“And what did you do?”
The little blade answered, “Oh, my Lord,
Memory is bitter to me,
For, if I did good deeds,
I known not of them.”
Then God, in all His splendor,
Arose from His throne.
“Oh, best little blade of grass!” He said.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Anxiety and Leadership

Daily Readings
Psalm 64 + Numbers 11 + Deuteronomy 4 + Matthew 20

Verse for the Day
• For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today? Deuteronomy 4:7, 8

Daily Text Numbers 11:1-3, 10-15

Now when the people complained in the hearing of the LORD about their misfortunes, the LORD heard it and his anger was kindled. Then the fire of the LORD burned against them, and consumed some outlying parts of the camp. 2But the people cried out to Moses; and Moses prayed to the LORD, and the fire abated. 3So that place was called Taberah, because the fire of the LORD burned against them. 10Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, all at the entrances of their tents. Then the LORD became very angry, and Moses was displeased. 11So Moses said to the LORD, "Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? 12Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,' to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? 13Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, 'Give us meat to eat!' 14I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. 15If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once--if I have found favor in your sight--and do not let me see my misery."

Anxiety and Leadership
Moses was no exception. All leaders face times of heart-wrenching anxiety. Simply put, leadership is almost impossible. There is a saying that “Leadership is its own reward.” That is probably true, but it is only one side of a truth. The other side is that it is not only difficult, at times it consumes one. This was one of those times for Moses. His anguish is startlingly revealed and the rabbis wrestled much with his ‘sin’ in being so radical in his demand on God—anguished enough to want to die in order to have it over with. But this anguish was between Moses and God. The difference between great leadership and failed leadership is that the leader who fails bares this anxiety to his or her people. The people begin to see and internalize the leader’s anxiety and lose respect for the leader. Moses takes it to God and God, whether it was through Jethro (or Hobab, Exodus 18, Numbers 10:29) or from God directly appointed 70 elders, or 72, depending on how you count, to assist him in leading this people. Reinforced by God’s provision of quail promised by Moses, the people settled in once again behind their leader, Moses.

This is one of those many places where the details of the text do not mesh, for the people had meat always, cattle and goats and sheep, all of which they were sacrificing, and presumably eating. So what was the issue? The rabbis concluded that they were missing a life of moral freedom, immoral might be a better way of saying it, that they had enjoyed in Egypt even as slaves. Now in the wilderness they were captive to this God who demanded purity of life for continued favor. Oh, there may also have been a craving for more variety in their foodstuffs, but there must have been more to it and the above is a good guess. It also explains more of Moses’ struggle, for he is the one who has mediated this standard of justice and its companion, righteousness. How difficult it is for us to live righteously. We thrive within it and we long to break out—and do! Notice how often this theme of rebellion against the One God comes up in the Torah and in the Prophets and in the New Testament. No wonder sound leadership is so difficult and so rare. In this story, God’s sympathy is on a short tether; thank goodness, his love and mercy are steadfast and judgement for his people is discipline and not revenge.

The Lord is My Portion
Judah Ha-Levi

Servants of time, lo! these be slaves of slaves;
But the Lord’s servant hath his freedom whole,
Therefore, when every man his portion craves,
“The Lord God is my portion,” saith my soul.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Wilderness Movement

Daily Readings
Psalm 63 + Numbers 10 + Deuteronomy 3 + Matthew 19

Verse for the Day
O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a barren and dry land where there is no water. Psalm 63:1

Daily Text Numbers 10:1, 2, 11-13

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 2Make two silver trumpets; you shall make them of hammered work; and you shall use them for summoning the congregation, and for breaking camp.
11 In the second year, in the second month, on the twentieth day of the month, the cloud lifted from over the tabernacle of the covenant. 12Then the Israelites set out by stages from the wilderness of Sinai, and the cloud settled down in the wilderness of Paran. 13They set out for the first time at the command of the LORD by Moses.

Wilderness Movement
Shades of the old west! In Numbers 7 we saw covered wagons pulled by oxen (NRSV) and now in Numbers 10:12 we find Israelites setting out by stages. John Wayne may be just around the next butte!

We have seen this sort of exact dating before. On the 20th day of the 2nd month of the 2nd year the assembly leaves the mount of God. The signal is a long blast on a silver trumpet, otherwise known as a ‘shofar’ or much earlier a ram’s horn. These trumpets have long been used to announce events in Judaism and Christianity and in armies, and great civil events. The ‘alarms’ in the NRSV are translated as long and short blasts in the Jewish Publication Society translation. Dr. Gunther Plaut wrote concerning the shofar:
“The cloud was a visual, the trumpets an auditive reminder of God’s presence. Somehow Jewish instinct never quite trusted the witness of the eyes. Moses performed signs, but these could be duplicated—what he said could not. At Sinai the emphasis was not so much on what the people saw but, more importantly, on what they heard. The true key word of Judaism is not re-eh (see) but shema (hear). The cloud is gone, the sound of the shofar remains. 185:1086”

However, the cloud lifting from the tabernacle was God himself leading the people. The trumpet blasts were simply announcements of what God was doing. One suspects that attention to both sight and sound was and is advisable.

Shofar Echoes
Annette Kohn

I’m but a child, and childish toys
Make up the sum of all my joys—
But hark! while I am playing here
A strange sound falls upon my ear,
A note of music weird and wild,
And lo, I am a changeling child—
Where I stand with my childish feet,
The centuries around me meet;
Though fresh the laughter in mine eyes,
And on my lips, yet full of sighs
The air about me, and I seem
To live and move as in a dream.
With that strange music rise and swell
Old memories of what befel
The children of my ancient race.
The Shofar brings me face to face
With all the martyrdoms of old
That are in song and story told;
And as its tones ring shrill and loud,
They make me feel both sad and proud
That I am heir to all this woe,
That all this glory I should know.
And though I see strange children play
With all the baubles of the day,
I know I have more precious things;
My gifts are from the King of kings,
Whose angels He before me sent,
And to them of His glory lent.
The Shofar, hark! it tells my soul
That as the ages onward roll,
I more and more shall feel and hear
The Spirit’s speech around and near.
My feet shall forward, upward press,
Until a perfect wilderness
Of flowers springs where’er I tread,
And blessings rain down on my head.
. . . . . .
So may the Shofar peal on peal,
The heart unto itself reveal;
‘Till thou again, O Israel,
in “Jacob’s goodly tents” shall dwell.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

We Go from God to God

Daily Readings
Psalm 62 + Numbers 9 + Deuteronomy 2 + Matthew 18

Verse for the Day
For God alone my soul in silence waits; from him comes my salvation. Psalm 62:1

Daily Text Numbers 9:1, 2, 15-17

The LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying: 2Let the Israelites keep the Passover at its appointed time.
15 On the day the tabernacle was set up, the cloud covered the tabernacle, the tent of the covenant; and from evening until morning it was over the tabernacle, having the appearance of fire. 16It was always so: the cloud covered it by day and the appearance of fire by night. 17Whenever the cloud lifted from over the tent, then the Israelites would set out; and in the place where the cloud settled down, there the Israelites would camp.

We Go From God to God
The call for Passover is in the first month of the second year and we are already in the second month of the second year in the preceding chapters of Numbers. Consider this a flashback in the game of life. Passover has not previously been observed outside of that momentous night in Egypt, and some say it will not be observed again until the people are in the Promised Land. The thrice repeated formula of God tells Moses, Moses tells the people and then the people carry out the command appears once more in these early verses of chapter nine. This is an ancient story-telling formula, one used by public speakers even today: tell them what you are going to say, tell them, tell them what you have said. The principle is the same.

The pillar of cloud theme arises again as the people prepare to leave the Mt. Sinai area. This cloud is shot through with fire day and night, the fire only being seen at night. It refers to the glory, the kabod, the presence of God tabernacling with the children of Israel. Throughout Holy Scripture there is this phenomenon of God leading his people, but never is it expressed quite so physically, so dramatically. The people rest when the cloud rests and move when it moves. The presentation here sets the pattern that is to be followed for the coming forty years of wilderness journeying. The promise held out in scripture is that life can be like this journey—led.

Journey’s End
Evelyn H. Healey

We go from God to God—then though
The way be long,
We shall return to Heaven our home
At evensong.

We go from God to God-so let
The space between
Be filled with beauty, conquering
Things base and mean.

We go from God to God—lo! what
Transcendent bliss,
To know the journey’s end will hold
Such joy as this!

Monday, April 11, 2005

The Light in the Wilderness

Daily Readings
Psalm 61 + Numbers 7:89-8:26 +Deuteronomy 1+ Matthew 17

Verse for the Day
The LORD your God, who goes before you, is the one who will fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your very eyes, and in the wilderness, where you saw how the LORD your God carried you, just as one carries a chld, all the way that you traveled until you reached this place. Deuteronomy 1:30,31

Daily Text Numbers 7:89; 8:1-3, 5, 13-15
89When Moses went into the tent of meeting to speak with the LORD, he would hear the voice speaking to him from above the mercy seat that was on the ark of the covenant from between the two cherubim; thus it spoke to him.

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 2Speak to Aaron and say to him: When you set up the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the lampstand. 3Aaron did so; he set up its lamps to give light in front of the lampstand, as the LORD had commanded Moses.
5 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 13Then you shall have the Levites stand before Aaron and his sons, and you shall present them as an elevation-offering to the LORD.
14 Thus you shall separate the Levites from among the other Israelites, and the Levites shall be mine. 15Thereafter the Levites may go in to perform service at the tent of meeting, once you have cleansed them and presented them as an elevation-offering.

The Light in the Wilderness
The confusion of the Tent of Meeting as being outside the camp or the outer court of the Tabernacle continues. Sometimes ‘Tent of Meeting’ is used as a reference to the whole of the tabernacle much as we would use the word ‘church’ to refer to the nave and sanctuary in a place of Christian worship. It may well be considered as referring both to the Tabernacle and a simple place of meeting outside the camp overseen by Joshua. Certainly, in Numbers 7:89, it refers to the Tabernacle for mercy seat and cherubim are referenced. Psalm 61, appointed for today, makes this same reference in verse 4. ”I will dwell in your tent forever; I will take refuge under the cover of your wings.”

The Tabernacle is now actively set up. The menorah’s seven lamps are put in place and lighted. The Levites are purified and consecrated. What has previously been commanded is now instituted. God is speaking to Moses from his ‘dwelling place’ with his people. The promise of Exodus 25:22 is lived out in Numbers 7:89. Moses no longer goes to the mountain to speak with God, but to the tabernacle, perhaps into the holy of holies. Aaron may be High Priest, but Moses is the one who speaks with God. This intimacy brings alive the imagery of the Holy of Holies. Not just one day a year, but whenever Moses speaks with God. This sounds like the ‘law written on the heart.’ This reminds one of the direct address that Jesus made to his heavenly father and encouraged his followers to make in the ‘Our Father.’ This is worship of and communion with the One God.

When Israel to the Wilderness
from Union Hymnal, No. 127. Copyright, 1932,
by the Central Conference of American Rabbis

Max Meyerhardt

When Israel to the wilderness
Had fled from Pharoaoh’s cruel might,
Th’ Eternal sent to lead them on,
A cloud by day, a fire by night.

And, guided by that heav’nly flame,
That beacon from the Lord’s own hand,
The chosen people safely reached
Their destined goal,--the Promised Land.

Yet, not alone in days of yore,
Has God His wondrous mercy shown
For still He grants to all mankind
A glorious light to lead them on.

A lamp of radiant, glowing hue,
By Israel borne in ev’ry clime,
Through fire and flood, through tears and blood,
With courage grand and faith sublime.

Oh, heav’nly lamp! Thy light shall shine
‘Till sin and hate from earth depart,
‘Till wrong shall fail and right prevail,
and justice rule the human heart.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Carrying the Freight

Daily Readings
Psalm 60 + Numbers 6:22-7:88 + Leviticus 27 + Matthew 16

Verse for the Day
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.? Matthew 16:24

Daily Text Numbers 6:24-26, 7:1-11
24The LORD bless you and keep you; 25the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; 26the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
On the day when Moses had finished setting up the tabernacle, and had anointed and consecrated it with all its furnishings, and had anointed and consecrated the altar with all its utensils, 2the leaders of Israel, heads of their ancestral houses, the leaders of the tribes, who were over those who were enrolled, made offerings. 3They brought their offerings before the LORD, six covered wagons and twelve oxen, a wagon for every two of the leaders, and for each one an ox; they presented them before the tabernacle. 4Then the LORD said to Moses: 5Accept these from them, that they may be used in doing the service of the tent of meeting, and give them to the Levites, to each according to his service. 6So Moses took the wagons and the oxen, and gave them to the Levites. 7Two wagons and four oxen he gave to the Gershonites, according to their service; 8and four wagons and eight oxen he gave to the Merarites, according to their service, under the direction of Ithamar son of Aaron the priest. 9But to the Kohathites he gave none, because they were charged with the care of the holy things that had to be carried on the shoulders.
10 The leaders also presented offerings for the dedication of the altar at the time when it was anointed; the leaders presented their offering before the altar. 11The LORD said to Moses: They shall present their offerings, one leader each day, for the dedication of the altar.

Carrying the Freight
Now we find how they transported the mobile, but very heavy bases and accoutrements to the Tent of Meeting—transport wagons! This was an eminently practical way to manage the heavy weights involved. All but the Kohathites were given wagons. They had to manage the Holy of Holies, that which was most precious, the dwelling place of God and these things they carried on their shoulders, may we say, next to their hearts? M. Adler wrote, “The Bene Kehat—the ‘family that carried the ark’—had a challenging responsibility. They had to carry it upon their own bodies; they had to feel its weight; they could not seek means to make the burden easier. Religion, too, is a burden, and it is also a discipline. Anyone who seeks to carry a faith easily, shouldering no special tasks, making no distinctive sacrifices, will have a religion that is neither true nor helpful. [185:1079]”

From God to Moses to Aaron to us, the Aaronic benediction is the best known of all prayers in Holy Scripture, save the ‘Our Father.’ It is continuous use by Jews and Christians world-wide. It captures the goal of the vision of God. God’s blessing, God’s visible face, God’s face turned toward you, all combine to give the sense of favor, grace and protection. The second phrase that of YHWH’s face shining is sometimes thought of as the Shekinah or glory of God and is usually thought of in connection with the pillars of cloud and fire over the Tabernacle. It is for this reason that I have placed the benediction with chapter seven, rather than chapter six. The third phrase’s reference to face is the idea that God has turned toward you and figuratively away from others. This is the guarantee of peace that is offered. When you believed that to see the face of God was to die, here the holiest prayer of all enshrines the vision of God. It asks for a sight of the face of God for the individual and the whole people of God. It is my suggestion that the idea that peace comes from the countenance of God turned upon you also ties this prayer into Sabbath rest. In one short poetic, prayerful stroke, all of the goal of God for his people is gathered. So holy is this prayer that there is a tradition that at the temple in Jerusalem, though no where else that I have found, the priest when praying this prayer pronounces the unpronounceable name rather than saying ‘Adonai.’ And that name, YHWH, is found repeated in each of the three phrases of this prayer.
The LORD bless you and keep you;
The LORD make his face to shine upon you,
and be gracious to you;’
The LORD lift up his countenance upon you,
and give you peace.

The Benediction
Harry Weiss

There’s a memory that sweetens
My father’s last adieu,
There’s a solemn thought that deepens
When I think of him anew.
‘Tis the blessing that he uttered
When I took his last farewell,
The priestly threefold blessing
Our people know so well.

Ah, bless thee, Lord, and keep thee,
His countenance e’er shine,
And gracious be He to thee,
And give thee peace and thine.
His hands were spread in blessing
Above my bowing head,
His blessing lives within me,
His spirit is not fled.

The dear old Jewish custom
Made many a stout heart;
I always felt the better
When thus I used to part.
And though he is gone forever,
To sleep beneath the sod,
I still can hear him lifting
The self-same prayer to God.

Ah, bless thee, Lord, and keep thee,
His countenance e’er shine,
And gracious be He to thee,
And give thee peace and thine.
His countenance be lifted,
And may He grant thee peace,
The goal of earthly living,
And Heaven’s own surcease.