Sermon for Reformation Sunday Yr C, 31/10/2004
Based on Mk 10:45
By Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
In his book, Ragman And Other Cries Of Faith, Lutheran pastor and writer, Walter Wangerin, Jr. tells the story of a Ragman. 1 I would like to share part of this story with you now, because its message gives us a clearer understanding of what Jesus is saying in our gospel for today. Moreover, this message is one at the heart of the Reformation in that it places Christ at the focal point of humankind’s salvation. As Martin Luther and other reformers adamantly stated, salvation comes to us as a gift from God through Christ alone, thanks to his suffering and death on the cross.
Pastor Wangerin writes: “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! 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.
Then Pastor Wangerin proceeds to tell how the Ragman helped four people. The first was a woman crying most grievously. He traded her tear-filled handkerchief for a new, clean and shiny linen cloth. Then the Ragman put her soiled handkerchief to his face and began weeping grievously and leaving the woman without a tear.
The second person the Ragman cam upon was a girl with a blood-soaked bandage wrapped around her head. The Ragman removed the blood-soaked bandage from her head, healed her wound and put a lovely yellow bonnet on her. At the same time he put the bloody bandage around his own head and now blood began to run down his face as he hurried on to another person.
The third person was a man wearing a jacket who had no arm in one sleeve. The Ragman took his jacket and gave the man his own. When the man put it on he discovered that he now had two good arms and the Ragman only had one.
Then the Ragman found a fourth person, a drunk. He took the drunk’s old army blanket that he was lying on, wrapped it around himself and gave the drunk some new clothes. Then the tearful, bleeding, armless Ragman; wrapped in the drunk’s old blanket stumbled along to the City limits and beyond that to a landfill. Then, finding a space on top of a hill he lay down and died.
Pastor Wangerin continues: “Oh, how I cried to witness that death! I sobbed myself to sleep.” He slept until Sunday morning. “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. 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!”
This beautiful, moving story gives us a glimpse of what Jesus meant when he said: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Jesus, like the Ragman, lived and died as a Suffering Servant to give his love and new life to us. His life, his suffering and his death on the cross restores us, heals us and removes everything that alienates us from God.
Jesus’ choice of words here to speak about suffering and serving is very revealing. He uses the word ransom to describe the importance of his life, his suffering and his death. In Old Testament times, ransom referred to God’s liberating work, God’s deliverance. The main example of this was the Exodus story, in which God delivered the Israelite people from the Egyptians. God freed them from their terrible slavery in Egypt and gave them a new start, a new life, a new opportunity to live in freedom in a new land.
In Old Testament times and later in New Testament times, ransom came to mean a substitutionary sacrifice. In substitutionary sacrifice, an innocent person suffers and dies and takes the punishment of others who are guilty. This results in the guilty free and being forgiven. The Ragman is an example of substitutionary sacrifice. He lovingly took away the sufferings of the crying woman, the bleeding girl, the one-armed man and the drunk. Their sufferings became his, and in return, they were given a new start.
In New Testament times, ransom also came to mean redemption or to redeem. At that time in history there were still many slaves. These slaves were bought and sold at auctions. To pay money and buy a slave was to redeem that slave. The slave now belonged to a new master. We are slaves to sin, death and evil. But Jesus, our Master bought us with a price. He paid the price by dying on the cross so that we now belong to him and are freed from our old slavery. It cost him his life, but he did it freely and in love, and in return we are given a new start, new opportunities, forgiveness and new life. As we celebrate this Reformation Sunday, we celebrate this primacy of Christ in our life and in every life—ever grateful for the priceless gifts Christ gives us.
May we, like the Ragman and like Jesus, learn to serve others in love and freedom. For Jesus has liberated us from our slavery. He has taken away our guilt and he suffered the punishment that we deserve. He suffered and died in our place. He paid the costly price for us. In our response to this, a lifetime is too short to serve, praise and thank him! Amen.
1 I am most indebted to Pastor Walter Wangerin, Jr. for this story in: Ragman And Other Cries Of Faith (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984) pp. 3ff.