Scripture   II Corinthians 4:5-12 (The Message)  5-6 Remember, our Message is not about ourselves; we’re proclaiming Jesus Christ, the Master. All we are is messengers, errand runners from Jesus for you. It started when God said, “Light up the darkness!” and our lives filled up with light as we saw and understood God in the face of Christ, all bright and beautiful. 7-12 If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That’s to prevent anyone from confusing God’s incomparable power with us. As it is, there’s not much chance of that. You know for yourselves that we’re not much to look at. We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side; we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken. What they did to Jesus, they do to us—trial and torture, mockery and murder; what Jesus did among them, he does in us—he lives! Our lives are at constant risk for Jesus’ sake, which makes Jesus’ life all the more evident in us. While we’re going through the worst, you’re getting in on the best!

 Message   “Jars of Clay”     Rev. James Renfrew

In our house we have a stationary exercise bicycle.  A bicycle gets that name because your feet spin the pedals over and over again, and the faster you cycle the further you go.  And it’s called a bi-cycle, not because you use two feet to pedal, but because most bikes have two wheels upon which you move forward.  So, yes a tricycle moves three wheels forward, but it does not require three feet to operate!

When I use the stationary bicycle for exercise I usually aim to ride for an hour, and when the hour is up, usually 10 to 12 miles, I simply stop cycling, I get off the bike and head off for a shower.

But think of a bicycle that won’t stop, you can’t stop it and you can’t get off of it. You’re stuck and there’s nothing you can do about it.  The pedals keep cycling and the wheels keep spinning.

Have you ever noticed cycles that keep repeating themselves and are hard to stop?  The most obvious one to me is the sugar and salt cycle.  You start with a sweet soda, and that leads to a salty snack.  A sip of sweet leads to an urge for a taste of salt, which calls for another sip of sweet, and before you know it you’ve consumed a full liter of soda and a whole bag of potato chips.  The label says that there are ten servings inside that bag, but you just ate all ten in one sitting!  Once you get started in the sugar and salt cycle it’s hard to stop it.  The way it usually ends is when the soda or chips run out.  That cycle, if repeated over and over again, will end up destroying your health. I think you know all about that kind of cycle in which one addiction feeds another and becomes hard to stop.  You can probably tell me all about other patterns that follow the same kind of cyclical pattern.

There are some cycles bigger than the sugar and salt cycle.  Consider violence.  Violence has a way of leading to more violence, not just back and forth, but escalating along the way so it becomes deadlier and deadlier.  Violence, then retaliatory violence … and before you know it there is a lot of hurt, little ability to trust, and fewer and fewer chances for peace.  Once a mean word is spoken, once a punch is thrown, once a bullet is fired, once a bomb is dropped it’s nearly impossible to take it back.

Years ago there was a woman in my Rochester church who told me that she had not spoken to her brother, her next door neighbor, in fifty years.  Their houses were as close together as the front row of pews to the back row, but they had not spoken in fifty years. That cycle had brought everything between them to a standstill, countless opportunities lost, love long gone.  I asked her what started this fifty year silence, was it an argument, a fight, jealousy?  She thought about my question for a long moment and then she admitted that she couldn’t remember how it all started.  And that may be true for cycles in your life, too, no one remembers what started them, which may make it even harder to get off the cycle.

I see these cycles all of the time as I read the day’s news.  Once the cycle gets underway it hard to stop, hard to slow it down, hard to get off, and the pedals just keep spinning.

It would be easy to feel powerless and hopeless about such things, but not me, not you, not us, because as Christians we have something available to us that breaks cycles like these.  It’s not our own invention, of course, it is a gift from God, and in fact I would call it the greatest treasure that God offers to people like us. More than a gift, it is a treasure, because it breaks the cycles that drive us to destruction.

That treasure is grace.  Grace is an essential gift, a life-giving insight, a key to spiritual vitality.  Grace is at the heart of lifelong discipleship, grace is the story told in evangelism. Grace propels us into the world to live that story. Grace is the tool that empowers church leadership; we can tell about salvation because we know personally about it.  Grace is the high note of our music, the fire in our prayers, and the motivation for love. It is woven into worship, prayer, music, mission, family and faith.  Grace inspires the care we offer to other.  Grace is the way we measure the health of our church, how much of it are we giving and how much are we receiving?

You may have heard of this grace; you may have read Paul’s letters, like this one to the Corinthians, maybe you’ve heard a lot about grace, maybe nothing at all.  It may be well-known to come, but in actual practice grace is uncommon, maybe even rare. It’s uncommon and rare, not because of God, but because of you and me.  Because God offers this treasure of grace each and every moment of our lives, but we downplay it, we ignore it, and maybe the worst mistake is not knowing how to receive it.  Grace is a radical idea that breaks the never ending cycles that distract us, drag us down and seek to destroy us.  It is a life-saver, but we constantly undervalue it.

So the gift is world-changing, a life-saver, but we are such imperfect vessels that the gift is often misused, undervalued and frequently forgotten.  Though we may leave piles of broken pottery wherever we go, God’s gift is not fragile.

I call grace radical, because grace upends so much of what we know, of what we rely upon, of what we are certain about.  In our part of the world, maybe all parts of the world, life is filled with rewards and consequences. Strive for perfection to receive life’s rewards, fall short and you lose out on everything.  The closer we get to perfection, the bigger the rewards.  It applies not only to work, study, and relationships, but especially to faith.  The most faithful, the ones who have memorized the Bible, the ones who know all the hymns by heart, who know how to compose beautiful prayers, the ones who are extraordinary in faithful living will receive a heavenly award.  This how we often understand faith.  Only a few extraordinary people can achieve it, while the rest of us are nothing more than broken shards of poverty, unable to hold the gift without dropping it!

At the heart of grace is surprise.  God’s grace is undeserved and unexpected.  Some think of God as hold us to account by discipline and fear.  A graceful God is nothing like that, seeking to transform each one of us and the entire world through love – undeserved and unexpected.  The Bible is filled with story after story of people who were surprised by this grace, undeserved and unexpected, and their lives became so much more.  As we receive the same gifts of grace, the treasures of faith, we hope and pray that our lives will become so much more, too!  These are the miracles of faith, unlikely and flawed people becoming ambassadors for Christ in a troubled world.

God’s grace is not a reward for the perfect; God’s treasures are not based on what we have or what we have done, but upon what we need!  This is the grace of God: mighty gifts for the undeserving.  In this way God breaks the cycles of fear, hatred, and greed that dominate our lives.  The question is not whether we deserve the treasures, but will we receive them with open hearts!