The Ragman – Walter Wangerin Jr.


In a recent sermon we were looking at what it means to be “in Christ” or “in the Lord.”  Phrases that Paul uses many times in his letters, including the letter to the Philippians.  I talked about how being in Christ had a number of different connotations,  and we thought briefly about three of them:

1 – A New Status

2 – A New Garment

3 – A New Dwelling

In terms of the New Garment, I mentioned a story by Walter Wangerin called the Ragman that I thought would be helpful to share with you in full:

I saw a strange sight. I stumbled upon a story most strange, like nothing in my life, my street sense, my sly tongue had ever prepared me for. Hush, child. hush now, and I will tell it to you.

Even before the dawn one Friday morning I noticed a young man, handsome and strong, walking the alleys of our City. He was pulling an old cart filled with clothes both bright and new, and he was calling in a clear tenor voice: ‘Rags!’ Ah, the air was foul and the first light filthy to be crossed by such sweet music.

‘Rags! New rags for old! I take your tired rags! Rags!’

‘Now this is a wonder,’ I thought to myself, for the man stood six-feet-four, and his arms were like tree limbs, hard and muscular, and his eyes flashed intelligence. Could he find no better job than this, to be a ragman in the inner city?

I followed him. My curiosity drove me. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Soon the ragman saw a woman sitting on her back porch. She was sobbing into a handkerchief, signing, and shedding a thousand tears. Her knees and elbows made a sad X. Her shoulders shook. Her heart was breaking.

The Ragman stopped his cart. Quietly, he walked to the woman, stepping round tin cans, dead toys, and Pampers.

‘Give me your rag,’ he said gently. ‘and I’ll give you another.’

He slipped the handkerchief from her eyes. She looked up, and he laid across her palm a linen cloth so clean and new that it shined. She blinked from the gift to the giver.

Then, as he began to pull his cart again, the Ragman did a strange thing: he put her stained handkerchief to his own face; and then he began to weep, to sob as grievously as she had done, his shoulders shaking. Yet she was left without a tear.

‘This is a wonder,’ I breathed to myself, and I followed the sobbing Ragman like a child who cannot turn away from mystery.

‘Rags! Rags! New Rags for old!”

In a little while, when the sky showed grey behind the rooftops and I could see the shredded curtains hanging out black windows, the Ragman came upon a girl whose head was wrapped in a bandage, whose eyes were empty. Blood soaked her bandage. A single line of blood ran down her cheek.

Now the tall Ragman looked upon this child with pity, and he drew a lovely yellow bonnet from his cart.

‘Give me your rag,’ he said, tracing his own line on her cheek, ‘and I’ll give you mine.’

The child could only gaze at him while he loosened the bandage, removed it, and tied it to his own head. The bonnet he set on hers. And I gasped at what I saw: for with the bandage went the wound! Against his brow it ran a darker, more substantial blood — his own!

‘Rags! Rags! I take old rags!’ cried the sobbing, bleeding, strong, intelligent Ragman.

The sun hurt both the sky, now, and my eyes; the Ragman seemed more and more to hurry.

‘Are you going to work?’ he asked a man who leaned against a telephone pole. The man shook his head. The Ragman pressed him: ‘Do you have a job?”

‘Are you crazy?’ sneered the other. He pulled away from the pole, revealing the right sleeve of his jacket — flat, the cuff stuffed into the pocket. He had no arm.

‘So,’ said the Ragman. ‘Give me your jacket, and I’ll give you mine.’

So much quiet authority in his voice!

The one-armed man took off his jacket. So did the Ragman — and I trembled at what I saw: for the Ragman’s arm stayed in its sleeve, and when the other put it on, he had two good arms, thick as tree limbs; but the Ragman had only one.

‘Go to work,’ he said.

After that he found a drunk, lying unconscious beneath an army blanket, an old man, hunched, wizened, and sick. He took that blanket and wrapped it round himself, but for the drunk he left new clothes.

And now I had to run to keep up with the Ragman. Though he was weeping uncontrollably, and bleeding freely at the forehead, pulling his cart with one arm, stumbling for drunkenness, falling again and again, exhausted, old, old, and sick, yet he went with terrible speed. On spider’s legs he skittered through the alleys of the City, this mile and the next, until he came to its limits, and then he rushed beyond.

I wept to see the change in this man. I hurt to see his sorrow. And yet I need to see where he was going in such haste, perhaps to know what drove him so.

The little old Ragman — he came to a landfill. He came to the garbage pits. And I waited to help him in what he did but I hung back, hiding. He climbed a hill. With tormented labor he cleared a little space on that hill. Then he signed. He lay down. He pillowed his head on a handkerchief and a jacket. He covered his bones with an army blanket. And he died.

Oh how I cried to witness that death! I slumped in a junked car and wailed and mourned as one who has no hope — because I had come to love the Ragman. Every other face had faded in the wonder of this man, and I cherished him; but he died. I sobbed myself to sleep.

I did not know — how could I know? — that I slept through Friday night and Saturday and its night too.

But then, on Sunday morning, I was wakened by a violence.

Light — pure, hard, demanding light — slammed against my sour face, and I blinked, and I looked, and I saw the first wonder of all. There was the Ragman, folding the blanket most carefully, a scar on his forehead, but alive! And, besides that, healthy! There was no sign of sorrow or age, and all the rags that he had gathered shined for cleanliness.

Well, then I lowered my head and, trembling for all that I had seen, I myself walked up to the Ragman. I told him my name with shame, for I was a sorry figure next to him. Then I took off all my clothes in that place, and I said to him with dear yearning in my voice: ‘Dress me.”

He dressed me. My Lord, he put new rags on me, and I am a wonder beside him. The Ragman, the Ragman, the Christ!

Summer of Joy

I am getting ready to start a summer preaching series on Philippians. It will run from mid June until…. Well, until it’s done, so it might last a wee bit longer than the end of the summer. I’m becoming more and more convinced of how important it is for us to spend time in a whole book of the bible and being submerged in it rather than dipping our toes in here and there and hoping for the best. If we believe that Christ is revealed in all of Scripture – which is affirmed in the New Testament then our goal should be to read the whole of Scripture, and to discover the wonders of who Christ is.

Many of the church fathers back in the early centuries, as well as most of the Reformers of the 16th Century adopted this approach to Scripture. It is called Lectio Continua. It essentially means reading through something in its entirety.

I want to invite you to do three things:

1 – Read Acts 16. It’s the story of Paul and his friends being called to Macedonia, specifically to Philippi, and what happens there. You will be introduced to three chracters. Lydia, a wealthy merchant who is gathered with a small group of women by the river for prayer. A psychic slave girl, who is set free from the spirits that have bound her. A working class jailer who, with his family come to faith in Jesus Christ. These three form the foundation of the church in Philippi. Read the passgae and get to know them.

2 – Read Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Look for some familiar verses. It is filled with verses that some of you may have heard before, but never realised where they have come from. Look for the places that Paul mentions his Joy, what are the things that give him Joy? Look for some of the other main themes in the letter, a big one is unity, and singlemindedness. Also look for the ways that Paul talks about Jesus. Who is Jesus to Paul? WHo is Jesus to the Philippians? Who is Jesus to you?

3 – Pray. Pray for me as I prepare the series. Pray for the congregation as we dive into the beautiful letter together. Pray that we will all discover more of Jesus, and seek to become like him.

Read on Some More…..

biblesSo maybe you are familiar with the stories in the Bible.  A children’s Bible is not for you perhaps.  You have read through much of the Bible and feel like you have something of a handle on the general flow.  The overview plan is maybe not the thing for you either.  You are maybe wondering what is the best translation when there are so many options out there!!

In our church the bible that we use in worship is the New Revised Standard Version.  It is the standard bible used in many mainline congregations and is a very accurate translation.  It is also the standard text in most seminaries.  It can sound a wee bit stilted sometimes if you are using it for public  or meditative reading, but as a study text it is excellent.

The New International Version has typically been very popular in more conservative churches.  It is much more readable, many of the prose and poetry passages have a beautiful flow to them.  It is a good standard, in my opinion for a more meditative or reflective reading of the Bible.

The English Standard Version is another translation that is favored by more conservative congregations.  Like the NIV it reads very well.  I really like the way that much of it sounds when it is read aloud.

Finally, the Message is a translation/paraphrase that was put together over a number of years by the Rev Eugene Peterson.  It is a little bit different from the others.  Peterson used some very contemporary idioms in the Message, as he wanted it to speak clearly to people today.  I typically use it as a back up, or for clarification if something in another version is hard to grasp.  Peterson sometimes puts his own spin on things and it can help to open things up a bit more.

There are many other translations, but these four are great to start with.  It doesn’t really matter which translation you choose.  Choose one, start reading and keep on reading and your life will be changed as you encounter Jesus Christ through this book!

Keep on Reading!

Some are more eager to jump into reading the Bible itself than starting with a children’s story bible.  That’s great!  But the challenge of where to begin and how to approach it can still be very real.

Some years ago the PCA pastor RC Sproul put together a basic plan for helping people get something of an overview of Scripture.  For those who would like to take a look, and start reading the Bible itself, I include it here for your edification!

The Old Testament overview includes:

  • Genesis (the history of Creation, the fall, and God’s covenantal dealings with the patriarchs)
  • Exodus (the history of Israel’s liberation and formation as a nation)
  • Joshua (the history of the military conquest of the Promised Land)
  • Judges (Israel’s transition from a tribal federation to a monarchy)
  • 1 Samuel (Israel’s emerging monarchy under Saul and David)
  • 2 Samuel (David’s reign)
  • 1 Kings (Solomon and the divided kingdom)
  • 2 Kings (the fall of Israel)
  • Ezra (the Israelites’ return from exile)
  • Nehemiah (the restoration of Jerusalem)
  • Amos and Hosea (examples of minor prophets)
  • Jeremiah (an example of a major prophet)
  • Ecclesiastes (Wisdom Literature)
  • Psalms and Proverbs (Hebrew poetry)

The New Testament overview includes:

  • The Gospel of Luke (the life of Jesus)
  • Acts (the early church)
  • Ephesians (an introduction to the teaching of Paul)
  • 1 Corinthians (life in the church)
  • 1 Peter (an introduction to Peter)
  • 1 Timothy (an introduction to the Pastoral Epistles)
  • Hebrews (Christology)
  • Romans (Paul’s theology)

Start Reading!

Jesus Storybook BibleEvery now and again someone  will ask me where to start reading the Bible.  It’s a pretty big book and it can be very daunting trying to figure out how in the world to approach it.

Some start at Genesis and attempt to plow through from start to finish, and end up getting bogged down in all the lists in Chronicles and give it up as a lost cause.

The Bible is a big, complicated and complex book.  It contains all sorts of literature; stories, poems, letters, songs, theology, philosophy, parables, metaphors, and many others.

One of the best ways to get familiar with the Bible is to start with the stories.  Many of them are retold well in children’s bibles.  The Jesus Storybook Bible is a wonderful way to start learning, or relearning the story of Scripture.  It not only tells many of the stories, but it helps the readers, child and adult alike to see how Christ is present in all of Scripture.

If you have been looking for a place to begin, this might be the place for you.

The Welcome of Jesus

Big Daddy Weave RedeemedIt’s been a while since I posted anything.  I thought it was about time to start putting some thoughts back in this wee bloggy thing again.  This past Sunday we thought about the story of the woman who came to the house of Simon the Pharisee and anointed Jesus feet with her perfume from Luke 7.

The way the story is told, it seems like there is only one sinner, only one person who is broken, and that’s the woman.  But as Jesus responds to her it becomes very apparent that Simon, who is the very image of respectability and righteousness is also broken as well.  The difference is, the woman couldn’t hide who and what she was.  Simon didn’t want to admit his own sin.

The passage ends before we find out what happens to Simon.  We never learn his response to Jesus.   But what we do know is how Jesus responds.

As he welcomed the woman, so he would have welcomed Simon.  And so he welcomes you and welcomes me.

No matter how broken we are, and all of us are broken one way or another, he loves us and wants us to come to him, so that we might know the extent of his love.  And when we come, we will never be the same again!

Click on the image above to take you to a song about the extent of Christ’s love for you!

Is This the Real Life? Is this Just Fantasy?

File:Transfiguration of Jesus.jpg

The Gospel lection for this Sunday is Mark 9:2-9.

The gospel has been zooming along at a pretty major clip shooting from one Sabbath to the next when we are suddenly brought to a halt. This almost magical event happens not immediately or on the Sabbath, but six days later. Mark suddenly loads us with more details in this passage than we are used to getting from him. It happens on top of a mountain. Jesus’ clothes become whiter and brighter than the sun. Two of the Great heroes of the Hebrew Faith magically appear and start talking to Jesus. The disciples have no idea what they are seeing or hearing or experiencing. It’s almost like they are in a different realm. It’s like they have passed from this world into an other world where time has no meaning and the laws of physics cease to apply.

There have been all sorts of attempts to interpret this passage, and to make sense of it. In worship on Sunday at the Pluckemin Presbyterian Church we are going to think briefly about some of the things this passage might be pointing to. But the reality is that no matter how often we read this passage, and even if we think we have it figured out, it still defies our full understanding.

It takes us to the mountain top where we experience something completely otherworldly; something beyond our ken. It takes us to a place where we have to acknowledge that things are not what they seem to be. It forces us to look beyond the physical and to enter into a different and deeper reality where we are enthralled by our world transforming experience. Time stands still. All time exists in this one moment. We are swept up in the wonder and magic, and we never want to leave. We want to hold on to this moment. We want this moment to exist for ever.

But it’s a moment out of time. As soon as we try to hold on to it, it begins to slip away. And it must slip away. We can’t survive out of time. The air is too thin at the top of the mountain. It must slip away. We have to let it so that we can slowly trudge back down the mountain and live in the memory and power of that endless moment. And somehow bring something of that encounter back into the everyday with us.

In the presence of such a mystery we are never the same again. We have been changed, but not just for the sake of change. We have been transformed in that timeless moment, that we might begin, little by little, to change the world around us in the time that we have been given.

The image above is entitled The Transfiguration of Jesus by Armando Alemdar Ara. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

A House of Healing

Sermon for February 4th, 2018.  The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Mark 1:29-39

A House of Healing

Does the name Rosemarie Aquilina mean anything to you?  If you have been paying attention to the news over the last few weeks, it’s a name that I’m sure is more familiar than you might realize.

Rosemarie Aquilna is the judge who presided over the sentencing phase in the case of Larry Nassar.

In an unprecedented move, she permitted close to 160 young women and girls to take the stand and share their stories of abuse and fear at the hands of this man who was in a position of implicit and explicit trust.

As she and the gathered crowd and media listened to the harrowing stories of these young women, she responded to each one with a word of comfort and encouragement.  To one, she said, “ The military has not come up with a fiber as strong as you.”  She called her a heroine, and said Mattel should make dolls of you, and little girls would all want to be just like you.”  To another who shared the story of her anguish she gave the profound encouragement, “Leave your pain here, and go out and do your magnificent things.”

Leave your pain here, and go out and do your magnificent things!

What a powerful word for anyone who has experienced pain at the hands of another.  Too often, so many of us internalize that pain, and turn it into guilt, so that somehow it becomes my own fault.  I deserved this.  And that guilt becomes like a burning fever in the very core of our being that binds us and holds us back from doing our magnificent things.

This passage from Mark’s Gospel speaks to us of a woman who was bound in a sense and in pain.

We know absolutely nothing about this particular woman, other than that she was Simon’s mother-in-law, and that she was in bed with a fever.

Mark has this story happen immediately after the exorcism in the synagogue.  So you have Jesus moving from the realm of teaching and Spiritual authority, to the realm of family and community.  And in this story, he also demonstrates his authority.  It’s more subtle, but it is there in the words that Mark chooses to use to tell the story.

So what you are seeing is this expanding portrait of the authority of Jesus.  We’ve already been told in the passage last week that Jesus’ teaching astounded the people.  They heard that he taught with a type of authority that they had never seen in their religious leaders.

We also saw last week that his authority extended to things that bound people emotionally and spiritually.  So Jesus has authority as a teacher.  He has authority over the realm of the Spirit.  And here in today’s passage we see that he has authority over not just things that hold people back spiritually and emotionally, but apparently over diseases, physical illness as well.

Now, before I go any further, I need to say this.  Although this is a story about a physical healing, the point of the story is not about Jesus healing Peter’s mother in law.  It’s about Jesus and his authority.  I think it’s possible for some folks to read this passage and say, if He healed the woman in this story, why doesn’t he heal me?  Why doesn’t he heal some of these folks that we pray for on a weekly and often daily basis?

These are hard questions, that even the greatest theologians wrestle with and have wrestled with since theologians and philosophers began wrestling with the nature of God and the justice of God.  This passage is not trying to answer any of these questions.  Nor is it setting a precedent.

The danger is that when we take this as just a healing story, we miss the point of the story itself.  The story is part of a larger whole in this section of the gospel that is painting a picture of the authority of Jesus.  And how far that authority extends and how that authority is exercised.

One of the key phrases in this passage relates to the way that Jesus heals this woman.

In the ancient world, as today there were a whole host of so called faith healers.  For most of them there are certain elaborate words or rituals that have to be performed in order for there to be even the possibility of healing.

What’s worth noticing in this passage is that when Jesus heals Simon’s mother in law there are no fancy words, or hoops to jump through.  In fact, there are no words spoken at all.

The text simply says:  He came, he took her by the hand, he lifted her up.  And then the fever left her.  No words are spoken.  Jesus simply reaches out his hand and touches her.

Now I think you all know that I have spent the last 18 months working as Chaplain at Fellowship Village.  While I was there one of the things of which I became acutely aware was the importance of touch for so many of the residents.

For many of them, particularly in skilled nursing the touch that they received was medical in nature – not that it wasn’t caring – the nurses and CNAs cared from them very much and their touch was a very loving touch.  But it was practical.  I found that if I simply put my hand out the person would take my hand, and would often hold on to it for as long as I was able to stay.  Placing my hand on someone’s shoulder.  Offering a hug by way of greeting or saying farewell became something very healing.

Jesus simply reaches out his hand and touches her.

I said that this passage was also to do with authority.  And I said it was very subtle.  Well it is and it is.

The word that Mark chooses to use hear for touch is the Greek word Krateo.  Which comes from the root word Kratos.  Kratos has to do with someone’s right, power and authority.  It’s where we get words like democratic.  The power or authority of the people.

The word krateo has the same sort of authority meaning underlying it.  It has to do with seizing someone.  Taking hold of them.  Claiming something as their own.

And this is where we seem to have a wee bit of a challenge to some of our preconceived ideas of power and authority when we read this word in this particular context.  Jesus is taking this woman and claiming her as his own in the act of taking her by the hand.

Ordinarily the image of someone seizing another would be very oppressive.  When someone exercises authority over another it’s often seen as power exerting its rights over the one who is weaker.  But here we see the one who has all the power taking this character in the story by the hand, and in an act of utter self-giving and intimacy, rather than using his power to take from her, he actually gives power to her.  It’s the opposite of what you might expect when this particular word is used.  He offers her healing, wholeness and a brand new life.

He came, he took her by the hand, he lifted her up and the fever left her.

But that’s not where the story ends.

There is one more thing that happens in this short section.  It says she began to serve them.

There are a number of ways to think about this, and you could be quite critical of this particular response from a woman in a room full of men.  But please bear in mind the cultural norms and assumptions that are in this passage.

She is given new life, and with that new life her first response is to serve.  It’s to give back.  The power that she has received, she shares with those who are willing to receive it.  Not only does she serve those who are there immediately, but she opens her home, and it becomes a house of healing to all those who have need.

As a church, Christ has reached out his hand and claimed us as his own.  How will we respond to that?

I pray that whatever wounds we may have, in the hands of Jesus, in this House of Healing, around this table.  We may leave our pain here and go out and do our magnificent things.

To listen to the Audio – follow this link:

A Fresh Start

20180202_115342.jpgI am at the end of my first week as the Pastor of the Presbyterian Church at Pluckemin.  It’s been a week filled with new things to do and new people to meet.  I’m getting ready to lead my first worship service this Sunday, which happens to be a Communion Sunday.

I think it’s significant that we begin our journey together with a meal.  In his book, Bread for the Journey, Henri Nouwen writes:

“A meal together is one of the most intimate and sacred human events. Around the table we become vulnerable, filling one another’s plates and cups and encouraging one another to eat and drink. Much more happens at a meal than satisfying hunger and quenching thirst. Around the table we become family, friends, community, yes, a body.”

It’s my hope that as we begin this journey around the Lord’s Table we become all the we are called to be.