Here's the homily that I preached at both my congregation, Hope, St. Louis, and Trinity Lutheran Church, Cole Camp, MO for the "Reformation Festival" of the Sedalia Circuit of the Missouri District (LCMS). It was a great joy, honor, and privilege to join the brothers and sisters in central Missouri in order to proclaim the Good News of the Son setting us free from our slavery to sin, also since my wife and I got to see many relatives on her side of the family. Here's the homily:
The Son Sets Us Free
Reformation Day (Observed; at Hope & at Reformation Festival, Trinity, Cole Camp, MO)
In the late nineteenth century Joel Chandler Harris gave us the Uncle Remus stories with their famous, and impulsive, character Br’er Rabbit. In one story Br’er Rabbit has an unfortunate encounter with a Tar Baby, a lump of tar fashioned by Br’er Fox to look like a creature and thus lure Br’er Rabbit into a trap. Br’er Rabbit spots the Tar Baby and begins talking with it, but the Tar Baby does not respond. Impulsively, Br’er Rabbit concludes that the Tar Baby is stuck up. He insults and threatens the Tar Baby, but still the Tar Baby does not respond. Fed up with the Tar Baby acting stuck up, Br’er Rabbit hauls off and hits the life-sized but lifeless lump of tar. And his fist gets stuck. Then he hits it with his other fist. And that fist gets stuck. Then, totally upset with the Tar Baby, Br’er Rabbit uses one foot to kick the Tar Baby, and, yes, you guessed it, his foot gets stuck. Finally, Br’er Rabbit tries to hit the Tar Baby with his head…and gets stuck. Well, things don’t turn out too well for Br’er Rabbit, because Br’er Fox comes out from his hiding place and threatens to eat Br’er Rabbit.
What does Br’er Rabbit have to do with our Gospel reading or with celebrating the Reformation in the Western Church? Remember Jesus’ words: “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” Just as the Tar Baby grabbed Br’er Rabbit’s attention and lured him in, so also our sin appeals to us and lures us in. But there’s more. Just as Br’er Rabbit tried to fight the Tar Baby and got hopelessly stuck, so also with our sin. We can try to fight against our sin, even our many actual sins, but we’ll only get stuck—stuck as if punching, kicking and head butting a gooey, sticky Tar Baby.
In our Gospel reading, the Jews who believed Jesus were not at all convinced that they needed to be set free from any tar baby of slavery. Jesus said, “If you abide in My word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Pretty comforting words, if you think about it. But the folks who had believed in Him objected. “We are offspring of Abraham,” they reminded Jesus. “We have never been enslaved to anyone.”
I guess those folks somehow forgot about the 400 years they were enslaved in Egypt, making bricks and serving harsh Egyptian slave masters. I guess they happened to forget about the 70 years they spent in exile in Babylon because they had been faithless to the God who loved them, redeemed them, and freely gave them the Promised Land. I guess it slipped their mind that at the very time they said they’d “never been enslaved to anyone,” their country was subject to the Roman Emperor and his mighty armies. I guess it’s like Br’er Rabbit trying to say, “I never got stuck with no Tar Baby.” It just wasn’t true.
Jesus, though, knows better. He knows that they most certainly have been slaves and still are slaves, but He’s not thinking of politics and race relations. He’s thinking of the heart of the matter, of what enslaves every human being: “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” He’s thinking and speaking of our spiritual life. When we commit sins, we show that we are slaves to sin. The more we commit sins, the more we punch and kick that ol’ “tar baby”…and the more we get stuck. And if you’ve ever gotten tar on you, you know what a mess it is. Just imagine getting stuck in it.
Only Jesus, the Son of God, can free us from the tarry mess of our sinful state and our sins of thought, word, and deed. “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” And how does He do that? First, by taking on our human flesh and blood and becoming one of us. St. Paul called it “taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” But that’s not all. He also took the tarry mess of our sin upon Himself. “And being found in human form, he humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:7-8). As Jesus hung on that cross, hands and feet pierced with nails, head wounded with a crown of thorns, He put Himself in our place of fighting our “tar baby” of sin. “For our sake [God] made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). That’s what St. Paul means when he says in our second reading: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24).
This is why we celebrate Reformation Day today. No, we do not celebrate Martin Luther hauling off and smacking the pope a good one, as if he were Br’er Rabbit and the pope were the Tar Baby. No, we do not celebrate Martin Luther throwing off the shackles of some burdensome church tyranny and starting his own, freer kind of religion. He even said that he was not trying to start his own church. No, we do not gather on this day for a Lutheran pep rally and cheer, “Luther, Luther, he’s our man; if he can’t do it, no one can.” And we certainly do not gather to sing a modified version of that song by Queen: “We are the Lutherans, my friend. And we’ll keep on fighting till the end.” So let’s not be like those folks in our Gospel reading—let’s not say, “We are offspring of Luther and have never been enslaved to anyone.”
Instead, we celebrate Reformation Day because Luther and the Reformation remind us to fix our eyes on Jesus the Author and Perfecter of our faith. After all, it’s only by Him that we can be and are free from the tar baby of our sin. This is the “eternal Gospel” that the angel carries in our first reading.
Let’s go back to what happened on October 31, 1517. We know the story. Luther posted his “95 Theses” for scholarly debate. He saw some problems and abuses in the church of his day, and he wanted to correct those abuses with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the freedom from sin in His cross-won forgiveness. Remember how Luther began those “95 Theses”: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Repentance. That’s the one thing that the offspring of Abraham in our Gospel reading did not have. That’s the key thing that was missing in Luther’s day as people tried to seek God’s graces by man-made works designed to merit God’s favor.
But it’s the very thing that Jesus is talking about in our Gospel reading. No, I didn’t hear the word “repentance” there either, but it’s what our Lord is teaching us. “If you abide in My word…you will know the truth.” What truth? The truth that you and I are enslaved in our sins. How so? When we give in to works such as “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies and things like these” (Gal. 5:19-20). Ew! What a tarry mess! And, try as we might, we cannot free ourselves from such things.
“And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free…. If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” And how’s that? By His death and resurrection; by His gifts of life and forgiveness that free us from the tar baby of sin and death. Also by being brought into His house, the Church, where we live in repentance. It’s not enough just to be pardoned; we also need to be brought into Jesus’ home, the Church. We’re not just saved from sin; we’re also saved for living as God’s children.
The Son remains forever in the house of His Church. It’s where we are freed and cleansed from the tar of our sin in the purifying waters of Baptism [just as Sergei and Slav now have been]. It’s where we live confessing our sins day in and day out and hearing the liberating words of our Lord’s Absolution. That Absolution keeps cleansing us from the tar of the sins we keep getting on ourselves. The house of His Church is where our Lord’s holy Body and Blood free us in forgiveness and strengthen us to resist reveling in the tar baby of our sins.
When the Son of God sets us free from our sin and sins, He also frees us to live in the fruit of the Spirit—in “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:22-23). When we practice such things, we do not try to merit God’s favor. You see, we can truly practice such things only when we already have God’s favor in Christ Jesus. “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24).
So, instead of trying to fight the tar baby of our sin with our punches and kicks against our sticky sins, let’s cling to the truth of Jesus’ word of truth: “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” After all, He has kicked sin and death in the teeth, and He frees us to live with Him in His house. Amen.