This morning I would like to share with you a story written by Walter Wangerin. I invite you to use your imagination to picture the story; a story called The Ragman.
“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!’ Oh the air was foul and the first light filthy to be crossed by such sweet music.
‘Rags! Newrags, for o—ld! I take your tired rags!’ he sang.
‘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 was not disappointed.
Soon the ragman saw a woman sitting on her back porch. She was sobbing into her handkerchief, sighing, and shedding a thousand tears. Her knees and elbows made a sad ‘X’ together. 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 rubbish.
‘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. And then,as he began to pull his cart again, the Ragman did a strange thing: he put that 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 a mystery.
‘Rags! Rags! New Rags for old!” he sang.
In a little while, when the sky showed grey behind the rooftops and I could see the shredded curtain shanging out of black windows, the Ragman came upon a girl child 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 pulled out a lovely yellow bonnet from hiscart.
‘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: because with the bandage went the wound — Against his brow it ran a darker, more substantial blood – it was his own blood!
‘Rags! Rags! I take old rags!’ cried the sobbing, bleeding, strong, intelligent Ragman.
The sun hurt both the sky,and my own eyes, now; 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 cuff — the cuff itself was stuffed in his pocket. He had no arm.
‘So,’ said the Ragman. ‘You 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 man put it on, he had two good arms,thick as tree limbs; but the Ragman – he had only one.
‘Go to work,’ he said.
After that he found a drunk, lying unconscious beneath an old woollen blanket, an old man, hunched over, 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 a 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 inthis man. I hurt to see his sorrow. And yet I need to see where he was going with such haste, perhaps to know what drove him so.
The little old Ragman — he came to a landfill. He came to the garbage dump. And then I wanted to help him in what he did but I hung back, hiding. He climbed a hill. With tormented labour he cleared a little space on that hill. And then he sighed. And he laydown. He pillowed his head on a handkerchief and a jacket. He covered his bones with an old woollen blanket. And he died.
Oh how I cried to witness that death! I slumped in an abandoned 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 tosleep.
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! Oh 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. And then I took off all my clothes in that place, and I said to him with dear yearning inmy voice: ‘Dress me?”
Oh he dressed me. My Lord,he put new rags on me, and I am a wonder beside him. The Ragman, the Ragman, the Christ!’
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
Jesus was a man of sorrows, a man familiar with suffering. Just as the story of the Ragman illustrates, Jesus gave of himself, he gave everything, he gave of his own body and blood, he gave up his life. And in giving up his life, he gives us life.The Scriptures tell us that because of Jesus, “Though our sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” In his death, Jesus took upon himself all of our sin; all this was laid upon him so that we could be made white as snow. Jesus took upon himself our filthy rags and because of his death, he gives us clean, white garments to put on. New rags for old.
Today, Good Friday, is the day that we gaze upon that hill where Jesus let out his final cry, breathed his last breath and gave up his spirit. Today is the day when we enter into the pain, into the sorrow, into the darkness, into the quiet, into the grief, into the affliction of the cross. Today is the day we remember Christ’s death on that wooden cross. Today is the day when we enter into the suffering that our Saviour endured for our sakes, that we might have new rags for old. Amen.