HOMILY FOR 4th SUNDAY OF EASTER YEAR A 2020 (home)
The image of a shepherd may be familiar to an older generation because kids then just seemed to know about sheep and farms and country life. A modern generation doesn’t relate to a shepherd unless they watch “Country Calendar” on a Sunday night TV but that’s not likely. For the people of Israel a shepherd was an abiding image. David was a shepherd who became their king, a leader who cared for and looked after his people. The shepherd was close to his sheep and looked after them even to the risking of his life for them. At night when the sheep were gathered into the fold or corral, the shepherd often lay himself down across the space where today, a gate would have been. Any wild animal had to deal with the shepherd before it could attack the sheep, When Jesus described himself as the “gate of the sheepfold” he really meant it. An enemy can only get to us, his sheep, over his dead body. He will always take the wounds of our sins upon himself to heal us; he will give up his very life for us because he cares so much. This is what redemption means – this is the Easter story. But because we’ve heard it, read it so many times, familiarity dulls its meaning. So I’d like to tell it to you in another way, in another story, a famous story written by Walter Wangerin Jnr, a wonderful storyteller. Here is the story of “The Ragman”.
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, bright and new, and he was calling out “Rags! New rags for old! I take your tired rags! Rags!” ‘This is a wonder,” I thought to myself, for he stood tall, his arms were 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.
Soon the ragman saw a woman sitting on her back porch. She was sobbing into a handkerchief, sighing and shedding a thousand tears. Her shoulders shook. Her heart was breaking. The Ragman stopped his cart. Quietly, he walked to the woman. “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 shone. 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.
I followed the sobbing Ragman like a child who cannot turn away from mystery.
“'Rags! Rags! New rags for old!"
In a little while, 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. He looked upon this child with pity, and he drew a lovely yellow bonnet from his cart. “Give me your rag,” he said, “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 ran a darker, more substantial blood -- his own! “Rags! Rags! I take old rags!” cried the sobbing, bleeding, strong, intelligent Ragman. He asked a man who leaned against a telephone pole “Are you going to work? ‘Do you have a job?" “Are you crazy?” sneered the man. 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.” 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, 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. Now the Ragman 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. He skittered through the alleys of the city until he came to its limits, and then he rushed beyond. The little old Ragman -- he came to a landfill – he came to the garbage pits – he climbed a hill. With tormented labour he cleared a little space; he sighed, lay down and 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 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 violent 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!
“I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly”