Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Miracle?

Friends, something truly remarkable happened today and I just have to share with you.    I have the privilege every 6 weeks or so of leading worship at a local nursing home.  The residents are hungry for God's word, especially in the form of singing old favorite hymns.

Today, we celebrated the Baptism of Jesus, and to explain the gift of baptism, I shared my paraphrase of Walter Wangerin Jr's story "The Ragman".   If you are not familiar, here's a link to the full story:  The Ragman

Anyway, as I began my homily, the activities director wheeled in one final resident, who seemed distant and lost in her own world.

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!" "Rags! New rags for old! I take your tired rags! Rags!"

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, sighing, 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 so 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, 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!

I looked towards the rear of the room, and the previously distant resident was looking back at me, her hands moving.  The activities director was staring at her, with a look of amazement.  I continued on with the story.

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

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.

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, exhausted, old, old, and sick, yet he went with terrible speed. I wept to see the change in this man. I hurt to see his sorrow. And yet I needed 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 then I wanted 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 sighed. He lay down 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 last and 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 nor of age, and all the rags that he had gathered shined for cleanliness.

I concluded with words like:  Friends, this is what God has done for us.  Taken our hurts, shame, and pain to the cross and made us new.  This is the gift of baptism, the gift of God's love revealed in Christ. 

Then I heard clapping and giggling, the resident was there, fully engaged and smiling.  Indeed, the Ragman, Jesus Christ, had once again come, taken the pain and hurt away.  Leaving a child of God, basking in the warmth of God's love and eagerly singing What a Friend We have in Jesus.

Thank you God,  for the gift of your word made flesh.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Wash up

As a kid, I delighted in playing in the pine woods behind the house.  The swath of trees separated my parents' property from a private country club.  With my sister and neighbors, we'd create elaborate "houses" by raking the decomposing pine needles and leaves to make mounds.  By rake, I mean we'd use our feet and hands to clear 20 - 30 ft areas.  Can you guess what mom said before dinner when she saw our darkened hands?

Wash up

That's what God says to us.  The invitation to the divine includes a simple invite to get washed.  To be made clean in the waters of baptism.  God promises to wash away the sins.  We need to remember this daily. 

Baptism isn't a once and done deal.  Seriously, would you only take one shower/bath in your life time?   So every day, please remember God's love and forgiveness.  Martin Luther quipped:  "Every morning when I wash my face, I remember my baptism."