An NRA Christmas

But Mary was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Conceal and carry!

Luke 1: 26-28  NRAV [National Rifle Association Version]

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Dec. 22, 2015

Joseph the Widower – Christmas Eve

Steve’s poems and verses often capture something very large in a few short lines. His “In the Stable” manages to keep the earthly and the heavenly together: an iconic smile at the end offered to a grief-stricken Joseph in the shame-filled, smelly stable. We publish “In the Stable” again for those of you who, like Steve’s Joseph, are dealing at the same time with grief and hope on Christmas Eve:

The shame that old man Joseph felt
in taking Mary to the barn
was mainly that, of course, it smelt:
it reeked with sheep shit, donkey dung,
and cattle plops. The widower
knew wives who whelped were never clean
themselves until the midwives pour
the well water over their loins
and legs, wash front and back. His first
young wife had died in giving birth
to their third child. He shook his fist
at heaven as she lay in filth
and breathed no more. Sweet Mary mild
step-mother, virgin, pushed and smiled…

– Verse by Steve Shoemaker; introduction by Gordon.

CLICK “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” to hear today’s live BBC broadcast (10:00 a.m. EST) from King’s College, Cambridge England.  Merry Christmas to all our readers.

The Angel Gabriel and Mary

A sermonic reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Dec. 21, 2014, Gordon C. Stewart.

Text: Luke 1:26-38

The Annunciation {El Greco]

The Annunciation {El Greco]

Mary has every reason to fear the appearance of Gabriel. Every demure depiction to the contrary, the Angel Gabriel’s “annunciation” to Mary is no private affair. It’s a public matter of the first order. Gabriel  is the archangel commissioned to destroy the offspring of the rebellious angels and human women. (see below). Mary shrinks back.

“Do not be afraid,” says Gabriel.

Why should she not be afraid? This is not just any angel.

This is the Angel Gabriel, whose trumpet will summon the people, sweep away the occupation forces that substitute their rule for the Kingdom of love and delight. This is an angel of revolution. The Archangel of conflict who inspires both hope and fear.

”Do not be afraid!”

El Greco’s painting of the Annunciation illustrates the problem of textual interpretation.
Gabriel’s appearance is not frightening. It’s very…how shall we say? Feminine. Even to the point of appearing perhaps pregnant himself. The great masters did not paint an angel messenger as male, even when his name is Gabriel or Michael, the only two angels named in Holy Scripture.

Gabriel in Hebrew means “God is my Warrior”. Gabriel is a warrior angel, announcing to Mary that she too is to become a warrior, a mother whose birth-giving will lead to conflict with the Empire and the religious authorities who collaborate with it.

As described by New Testament scholar Carol Newsom, any annunciation by Gabriel inspires fear.

In the Book of Daniel, Gabriel is preeminently an angel of eschatological revelation. He is sent to Daniel to explain a vision of ‘the time appointed for the end’ (Dan. 8:15-26)…. Gabriel’s functions are more varied in I Enoch. In the Book of the Watchers (I Enoch 1- 36) he is listed as ‘the one of the holy angels who is in charge of paradise and the dragons and the cherubim (20:2). He is commissioned to destroy the offspring of the rebellious angels and human women (10:9-10)….

In the War Scrolls from Qumran (IQM) the names of 4 archangels, Michael, Gabriel, Sariel, and Raphael, are written on the shields of the 4 towers of the army. The positioning of the 4 archangels around the throne of God or other sacred space has a long subsequent history in both Jewish and Christian tradition…. [Carol Newsom, “Gabriel.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 2]

So why does Gabriel look the way he does in the art museums and literature of Christian interpretation? Why does the original Gabriel look so benign? And why does Mary look so calm, perhaps even demure, as in El Greco’s Annunciation?

The Jesus story has been neutered. The End Time has been re-interpreted by the Constantinian Church as a paradise beyond time, a state of afterlife, not this life. In no way political. In no way economic. In no way conflictual. Peaceful. Serene. Calm. Quiet Passive. “Let it be to me according to your word.” Never disquieting. Never disrupting. Never revolutionary.

Gabriel has been transformed, neutered, emasculated, rendered harmless by the Constantine religion whose adherents can no longer see the conflict between Christ, or his mother, Mary, and his father, Joseph, with the systems of unbridled greed and poverty under which they live. The Gabriel spoken of in most pulpits is not the Angel Gabriel that came to Mary.

We’ve turned Gabriel into our own image. But though we may tame him in our hearts and minds, our paintings and our sermons, we can erase neither the need to be afraid nor his invitation to fear not. Gabriel’s finger points at us, asking whether we will rally to the trumpet sound, the sound of his coming. We can repaint the young girl Mary as an icon of passive obedience and tranquility. But it will be a different Mary than the courageous one painted by the Gospel of Luke.

Luke and his Mary know that “Do not be afraid!” makes no sense unless there really is something to fear, and that we cannot overcome fear unless we hear Gabriel’s word of favor, “Hail, O favored one! The LORD is with you. Blessed are you among women…You shall conceive….”Do not be afraid…. For with God nothing will be impossible.”

“Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’

“Then the angel departed from her” for parts unknown to make his visits down through the ages, making the impossible possible.  Word has it he appeared last week in Washington, D.C. and Havana, Cuba to turn the impossible into the possible, a new Order being born from the old.

If you listen with faith, you might hear him. If you look, you will see him.


In the Footsteps of Mary

A sermonic reflection on America today, Dec. 14, 2014.

Today’s texts speak indirectly to the national outrage over the deaths in Ferguson, Cleveland, and Staten Island and to the larger context of the economic Law – Capitalism – under which they’ve taken place.

The Spirit falls upon Isaiah

…to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit….They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. (Is. 61:2-4)

I am in mourning. Even in the midst of Zion. Though I already taste the fruit of the Kingdom of God which is yet to come in fullness, I am in mourning. In ashes. Faint in spirit. Living among the ancient ruins, the former devastations, the ruined cities, the devastations brought on by many generations including my own.

There is anger out there. Lots of it. There are calls for justice out there. There are “die-ins” on Interstate Highways blocking traffic, interrupting business as usual. And it’s good. It’s right. It’s an American thing to do.

But, like most movements, this one will pass in a few weeks or maybe months. It will go the way of Occupy Wall Street.

For while protesters were were being hand-cuffed for “die-ins”, Congress was taking the hand-cuffs off Wall Street and the “too-big-to-fail” banks. The Dodd-Frank restrictions enacted following the 2008 meltdown were being quietly removed by hidden-away paragraphs in the down-to-the-wire spending bill. There will be no more hand-cuffs. No more probation. No more accountability to the American people. The legal limits on dealing in the “derivatives” market were being deleted on Capitol Hill, and, perhaps worse, the Dodd-Frank provision prohibiting a second government bailout was replaced by a commitment to bail them out again.

While on Capitol Hill the Law was being re-written to deliver automatic bail to Wall Street, individuals protesting law enforcement tyranny on the streets were hauled off to jail hoping a friend would bail them out.

Only within the larger economic puzzle do the various pieces begin to make sense.

For all of America’s national wealth, we are among the poorest of nations. We are a classist society bordering on a caste society. Class has always been the issue in America. Race and class have always gone hand-in-hand, but classism has other hands as well.

The wider context surrounding the law enforcement racial divide is the classism embedded in a global capitalist economic structure.

We are living still amid the “ancient” devastations brought on by rich white slave traders who captured Africans like animals for a zoo to work their plantations for profit. Racism is a class issue, an ownership issue, an issue of economic privilege, before it is anything else. The coupling of race and class is as clear now as it ever was, despite the Civil Rights Movement and the election of America’s first African American president.

Capitalism is the issue. The accumulation of wealth. The increasing concentration of wealth. The hoarding of wealth. Wealth disparity, power disparity, racial disparity, electoral disparity, legal disparity; what’s enforced and what’s not; who’s in handcuffs and who’s not; who’s bailed out and who’s not; who’s charged and who isn’t; who’s in prison for what and who’s not; who’s on probation or parole and who’s not; who’s elected to Congress and who’s not; who owns what and who doesn’t; who can pay for an election and who can’t – are all about class, the control of the means of production and capital and the expropriation of cheap labor and natural resources that can’t talk back.

Enter now into this world the psalmist of today’s readings who dared to dream of a great reversal of fortunes:

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.

Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.”

“The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb.

May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.

Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”[Psalm 126:1-6]

The tears of weeping bear the seeds for sowing and reaping of the sheaves of the new economic order. It is no accident that the psalmist mixes the metaphors of weeping, seeds, sowing, and shouts of joy, and sheaves. It is, as it were, a vision for the Earth itself. Honest weeping is the beginning – the sowing – that leads to earthly transformation and shouts of joy.

Mary, the newly pregnant peasant girl, becomes the representative, singing her song amid the ancient devastations, announcing the hope that will engage the powers of class “to provide for those who mourn” [Is.61:1]:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” [Luke 1:46b-55]

Put differently by Philip Clayton, Ingraham Professor of Theology at Claremont School of Theology, we are living

“…at the dawn of a new form of human civilization. Individuals, societies, and nations are now deciding whether to keep fighting to preserve the dying order, or whether to take leadership in building the new. It’s not a matter of waiting for more data; we already know what the old practices are doing to our planet, and we know what it takes to build a global society that is socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable. The ones who make the greatest difference are those who work and live with wisdom, with diplomacy, and with restraint, placing the good of the whole planet first.” [Philip Clayton and Justin Heinzekehr, Organic Marxism: An Alternative to Capitalism and Ecological Catastrophe, Process Century Press, 2014]

I’m still mourning. But I feel better. I know that the mourning is a holy thing, the hint of a coming “garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit” and so, I write. I pray. I sing. I mourn to the tune of Isaiah. I march to the dream of the Psalmist. I walk in the footsteps of Mary.

– Rev. Gordon C. Stewart, Honorably Retired, Views from the Edge, Third Sunday of Advent, Dec. 14, 2014.

Blessed Mary

The CHOIR magnificently sang
Bach’s LOUD complex “Magnificat!”
The orchestra was small, but rang
Out BRASS and DRUMS and ORGEL that
Reverberated through the Hall.

That GOD was GREAT there was no doubt,
The fugue repeated that till all
Could not help but join in the SHOUT!

(but then the oboe d’ amour stood
and quietly began with D
a tune of slave and poverty…
the cello cello cello droned

as pure and sweet soprano voice
recalled the Virgin’s humble choice.)

– Steven R. Shoemaker & Margaret R. Grossman

Note: Peggy Grossman is a Biochemistry professor at the University of Illinois who plays oboe in the Champaign-Urbana Symphony. She and Steve shared the experience of the Bach Magnificat.

The Angel Announcements

Not like Barocci’s kneeling pink-cheeked girl

(who’d be afraid of her?) with white lace wings

that gazes up at Mary with a smile…  


No, warrior Gabriel had frightened kings

and generals when he appeared:  “Fear not!”

had been his necessary words to all.


More likely it was Mary fell prostrate

as holy light threw shadows on the wall,

and words that she was blest and would give birth


without knowing a man clouded her mind.

To Joseph came the same confounding truth:

an angel in a dream said he would find


her pregnant without sex.  The angel’s word

from God caused them to accept the absurd.

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, December 27, 2012


Mary pondering

Mary pondering

Mary did not think about these things,

(she did not weigh pros and cons, did not

analyze, dissect, or speculate),

no…”But Mary kept all those sayings

and pondered them in her heart.”

“Peace in earth, & towards all good will,” said

heavenly soldiers, messengers from God.

Shepherds spread the news of Mary’s child;

she reflected, (undistracted), mulled

and wondered when peace would start…

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, December 21, 2012

Just Joseph

My children have had children, yet this week

this widower may take a teenager

to be a wife.  Her family did not seek

a younger, handsome  man.  A carpenter

I am, not an Adonis– I worship

just Adonai, and follow in the way

of Torah,  righteousness.

Did Mary slip

from  following the way, from purity?

She is with child, yet I have had a dream

like Joseph did of old:  an angel said

I should not fear to wed though it may seem

absurd.  The child in her has been conceived

by holy spirit, not by sex.  His name

should be Emmanuel, yes, God with us,

for he will save his people from their sins.


I will take Mary for my wife; Jesus

will be his name.  God can speak in a dream.

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, Dec. 4, 2012

A Visit with Mary

Mary with Maggie

Mary with my dog Maggie

Visiting with a 91-year-old friend with terminal cancer, the discussion turns to her final wishes.  Mary is a child psychologist by profession, a retired professor whose pioneering work with children at the University of Minnesota and Minneapolis’ Children’s Hospital is a legacy that will remain long after she is gone.

Raised in a strict Calvinist Christian tradition in Michigan, her soul long ago had come to drink from gentler wells – the quiet gatherings of the “Quakers,” the naturalist spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi and of American indigenous spiritualities that saw the sacred in the cirrus clouds, the fluttering of a leaf, a chickadee at the bird-feeder on the deck, or the circling of an eagle overhead.

When her husband died three years before, the family gathered privately to inter Doug’s ashes in a small opening in the woods on their farm near Wabasha. Doug, like Mary, is legendary in Minnesota…in a different sort of way…the street lawyer with the pony tail who started and led the Legal Rights Center with leaders of the American Indian Movement (AIM), the chosen intermediary between the federal troops and the AIM members at the Wounded Knee occupation in 1973 – Dennis and Russell Means, Clyde Bellecourt, Leonard Peltier, et. al..

The family marked the spot with four stones pointing North, East, South and West – the “four directions of the four corners of the earth.”  Early the next morning, the day of the public celebration of Doug’s life, one of Doug and Mary’s daughters had walked out to that tiny clearing in the woods. A bald eagle was sitting very still in the center of the four stones above Doug’s ashes.

I asked Mary at the time what she made of that.  With great respect, she paused…and said she didn’t know, and something to the effect that native peoples seem to be in touch with mysteries that elude the rest of us.  er statement struck me at the time because in our talks about death and dying, she had always indicated that she believed that life is lived between the boundaries of birth and death.  The eagle sitting on Doug’s ashes in that tiny opening in the woods didn’t seem to convince her of something beyond the grave, but she held a kind of sacred openness to the possibility, a respectful not-knowing about human destiny, the universe, and our place in it.

Now, three years after Doug’s death, we sit together, as we often have, over a lunch of shrimp, salad and fresh bread at the table that looks out at the bird feeders in the old converted mill on the farm up the hill from Wabasha.  Three of her five children are there.

Missy asks Mary whether she has told me her plans for her service when the end comes. There is a long silence as she goes away to some far off inner place – some wooded glen where no one else can go.  Her eyes are distant, dream-like, looking off to some far off place, sorting through her long spiritual journey to fetch the right words out of the forest of 91 years of memory.

Finally she speaks… softly.  Quietly.  Deliberately. “I want you to do the prayer and I want the benediction.”  “What kind of prayer?” I ask.  She looks at me quizzically, as if I should know.  “Something classical with the gravitas of tradition?”  “Yes,” she says.  “And what kind of benediction?” I ask.  “Blessed are the peacemakers,” she says.  “And music. What about music?”  “Oh, yes” she says, “Bach, Mozart, Beethoven…and ‘Let there be peace on Earth’”… and she wanders off again into that most personal space where no one else can go.

Ninety-one years summed up in four-words “Blessed are the peacemakers” from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

She is growing weary now. It’s time for her afternoon nap.  We say good-bye. I leave this sacred place of Mary’s world, get behind the wheel to drive home, turn on the radio, listen to news that is so far removed from Mary’s world and Jesus’ with all the saber-rattling and the name-calling, and I wish we all could have lunch with Mary or take a walk to the wooded glen where the eagle sat still above Doug’s grave at the center of the four corners of the earth.


For eight years Doug and Mary Hall’s farm was a second home. Mary’s pensive spirit and Doug’s activism made them natural parents of the state-wide movement for restorative justice in Minnesota and the Minnesota Restorative Justice Campaign.

Blessed are the peacemakers. RIP.