Pastor Emily Hartner:

Larry Dagenhart, Sr. recently told me the story about having breakfast one morning with a friend. (Don’t worry–he gave me permission to use it.)

His friend studied the menu, searching on all the pages for some grits he could order.

When he couldn’t find any, he asked the waitress about them.

“Honey,” she said, in a sweet southern drawl, “grits are like grace. They just come.”

We Lutherans pride ourselves in being well-versed in grace.

That’s what makes today’s Gospel reading from Matthew so confusing for us.

You see, we think that one way God dishes out such grace is by bending the rules a little and giving us a certain amount of leeway in what’s required of us.But Jesus’ words here in Matthew are quite clear: he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.

Not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until it is all accomplished.

What happened to that grace “that just comes” to those of us who have trouble following all the rules?

Did Luther just imagine it, when he talked about “justification by grace through faith”?

Was Jesus just pretending when he declared all foods clean, therefore seeming to abolish the food laws found in Leviticus 11?

Is righteousness really that vital to experiencing the kingdom of God?

Well for some people it certainly is.

Consider, for example, our first reading from Isaiah.

God is criticizing the people for their “fasting,” revealing the disconnect between their piety and their neglect of those in need.

“Is not this the fast that I choose?”

God says, “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.”

You see, if you’re oppressed, or hungry of homeless or in need, someone’s got to be righteous for your experience of the kingdom of God, at least the kingdom we pray to come on earth.

In this passage, grace is dished to these people in heaping portions.

The caveat, of course, is that this grace depends partially on us.

We can talk all we want about God’s free gift of grace, but if there are still people who are oppressed, hungry, homeless, and in need, then that grace remains incomplete.

We can also talk all we want about our justification not being dependent on fulfilling commandments such as these, which, I might add, is true, but it must bring God joy to see good works such as these.

Imagine, for a moment that you are God.

Don’t get carried with it, because let’s face it–you are not God.

But, just put yourself in God’s shoes for a moment.

Create something out of nothing.

Call what you have created “good.” Love what you have created.

Feel the disappointment when that which you love the most fails to love you back.

Let go of the grudge.

Guide the people you love through their mistakes, offer them second chances (and third, and fourth chances), and dole out grace like those grits that “just come.”

Now, what part of this brings you the most joy?

It’s dishing out the grace, isn’t it?

It’s certainly the case for me and I have to imagine it’s the case with God.

God gave the law so that we would be able to live with one another peacefully, and love one another.

The purpose of the law is love, and that law has the potential to bring great joy.

Some of you are aware that for the past four years, I have served on the North Carolina Synod Council.

We meet quarterly to make decisions on behalf of the Synod, approve the budget, and oversee the general goings-on of the Synod.

My favorite meeting of the year is the one where we vote to give away money–$600,000 worth of money, to be exact.

It is distributed to congregations and other organizations for the single purpose of mission and ministry–to free the oppressed, to feed the hungry, to house the homeless, and to serve those in need.

Our own soup kitchen is a recipient of some of these funds.

The St. Mark’s Council gets to do the same thing when we vote on the distribution of our endowment earnings for the year.

For those of you who have served on Council, you know that there is also great joy in this task.

In my mind, these decisions adhere extremely well to God’s laws and expectations of us.

They honor both the Ten Commandments and the kind of fast God requires in Isaiah.

But they don’t feel like burdens; they feel light and freeing, fun, even.

I’m convinced that this is one reason Jesus wants us to keep the law.

It’s the law that allows us to play active roles in the story of God’s grace.

In keeping the law, we risk being swept up in the Gospel, losing ourselves in it, so that we discover the richness of being a part of it.

It’s also why Jesus calls us “salt” and “light” as in “you are the salt of the earth,” and “you are the light of the world.”

They’re both things that change their surroundings.

Neither salt nor light do anything if they’re not functioning as salt and light–in other words, if they’re not doing something.

They are subjects of verbs. Salt flavors food. Light shines and reveals.

These are enjoyable functions that are essential to who God is–God flavors this world, God shines and reveals–but God also invites us to share in the joy of these activities.

Listen carefully, now, because here comes my obligatory Super Bowl Sunday sports analogy: We’re not simply bench-warmers (pew-warmers?) in God’s story of grace.

Who wants to just sit on the bench anyway?

That’s kind of boring isn’t it?

We’re called into play–we’re called to start the game, even–each and every one of us.

And, it’s not just any old game.

We’re talking about something as big as the Super Bowl.

Bigger, even, except that we don’t have to worry about being particularly good at the game.

Participation here with whatever abilities God has given us is all that God asks of us.

Well, and that we enjoy the game.

This is what it means to be a part of God’s gospel.

Oliver has a book I’ve been reading to him for months now called “The Pout-Pout Fish.”

It’s the story of a fish with an ever-present pout.

The other fish in the ocean try to get him to cheer up a bit, but he can’t for no other reason than the fact that he is, as the refrain reads, “a pout-pout fish with a pout-pout face for spreading dreary-wearies all over the place.”

One day, however, another fish swims up to him and interprets his puckered lips, not as a pout, but as a kiss!

She gives him a kiss, after which the pout-pout fish is overjoyed to learn that he’s supposed to be spreading cheer, not drear!

The story ends with him swimming around in the ocean, kissing each and every fish he sees.

Our baptism is the kiss that anoints us for spreading cheer, the joy of God’s grace.

It’s the gift of being called into the game instead of being asked only to warm the bench/pew.

It is the gift of becoming salt and light.

It is the gift of a heaping helping of “grace like grits”–way too much for us eat all of by ourselves.

Oftentimes, this gift comes in no other form than the law that even good old Luther said was a gift from God.

There is so much grace to go around.

We would be foolish–and pouty–not to do our part, not to jump in the game, not to allow that grace to “just come” in heaping portions to this grace-starved world.

So let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Oh–and don’t forget to enjoy the game.

Amen.