Breaking Away from the Peloton
‘Tis the season for the Tour de France. In fact, ‘tis the 100th season of the Tour de France. This is the legendary bicycle race throughout some of southern Europe’s most dramatically beautiful countryside. And just as the scenery is breathtaking, so is the riding. About 100 cyclists, at the peak of humankind’s athletic capabilities, ride for twenty-one days, averaging around 100 miles each day, at speeds of 30 to 40 miles per hour. For the uninitiated, these are jaw dropping statistics, only achievable by the best of the best. Today is the final day of the 2013 tour and right this moment riders are making their way into the center of Paris to finish at the Arc de Triumph. And since I can’t watch it live right now, for obvious reasons, I thought I could at least talk about it to a somewhat captive audience.
Yes. I’m a fan. And not just because of the cycling, but also because watching the tour is kind of like taking an extended Rick Steves guided romp through all the little hamlets and hot spots of rural France. And the armchair athlete can sip his or her espresso and embrace some of the European joie de vivre surrounding this sport. Admittedly, this is not Razorback football, but there are some parallels. There are crashes. People get hurt. Concussions are commonplace. There are tailgating parties. And both cyclists and Football players wear spandex. I also think there is a Gospel parallel here, which we will get to in a minute, but first, if you’ll go with me, just a little more set-up.
One thing characteristic of road cycling races like the Tour de France is that for the majority of the race time, the riders are all bunched up close together, almost touching one another. They do this so they can draft, or ride in each others slip stream. Kind of like geese flying in the shape of a “V.” Being a part of the group is more efficient and aerodynamic than riding alone. It requires less energy to be one of the crowd. They call this group the peloton, or literally, “small ball.”
Now, during the race there will be a few individuals who will try and break free of the peloton and shoot ahead in an effort to win the race. This is where the strategy comes in; the timing of a break-away is key. Nine times out of ten, when an individual shoots ahead, sometime later the peloton will catch up and he will be assimilated back into group, and often even spit out the back, forced to try and catch up, possibly resulting in an elimination from the race if he can’t. So breaking away from the group is risky business. It takes courage, focus, and the ability to notice when the timing is right.
In today’s passage from Luke’s Gospel, we find Jesus visiting the home of Martha, where he is welcomed to enjoy a respite from his travels. Mary, Martha’s sister, is also there, and takes pleasure in a few moments of silence at Jesus’ feet, enraptured by his words. Martha is consumed with her “many tasks” and admits her frustration at having to play hostess while her sister merely sits. Jesus responds, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
One way of finding meaning in this passage has to do with tying it back to last week’s parable of the Good Samaritan. The Martha and Mary story is chapter two, so to speak. If you recall, in last week’s gospel, Jesus tells a story about a traveler on the road who is accosted by robbers, he’s beaten and left for dead. Three men pass by: a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan. The priest and Levite ignore the man, while the Samaritan shows pity and comes to the man’s aid, and he is lifted up as the quintessential good neighbor, a true follower of the greatest commandment to “love one another.”
In both stories, Jesus celebrates the individual who breaks with convention. In the Samaritan parable, a member of Jesus’ original audience would know that priests and Levites are normally supposed to be the good guys. They are part of the crowd. Fine, upstanding, law-abiding citizens of the day. They’re supposed to be the ones setting the moral standard, and yet, all too consumed with their own image and agenda, they fail to heed the most basic needs of another. And in today’s gospel, according to the standards of the time, Martha is an exemplary host, dutifully caring for her guest. Generations of women before her had done the same, and yet, like the priest and Levite, in this instance, Jesus calls her up short. No, Mary was not helping with the dishes, but she did notice the presence of God in her midst, and she paused to put her attention there. No, the Samaritan, a foreigner, was not as socially respected as the priest and Levite, but he did notice the needs of one of God’s children in his midst, and he paused to put his attention there. Mary and the Samaritan have courage, focus, and the ability to notice when the timing is right.
You see, what Jesus has masterfully done in the telling of these stories is not only give fine examples of how one responds to the presence of God in one’s midst, but he has also convicted the crowd. His words have some sting. As author Robert Capon puts it, “as long as the most important thing in your life is to keep finding your way, you’re going to live in mortal terror of losing it.” In other words, if our motivation for living comes from the pressures and expectations of the crowd, we are doomed to live unfulfilled lives. Instead, might we be open enough to notice those moments when we need to break away from the crowd to truly do what Jesus would have us do?
Back to the Tour de France for just a moment. The peloton, that fast moving crowd of cyclists, is a fascinating animal. It naturally, instinctively, wants to catch the individual who breaks away, but interesting things can happen when the break-away cyclist refuses to be caught. That strong, persevering individual can actually alter the shape of the peloton. After an unsuccessful chase, the peloton can begin to break up a bit and lengthen as other individual cyclists and teams try to catch the leader. Suddenly being part of the crowd is no longer attractive when someone gets out front and demonstrates that successfully breaking away is indeed a possibility, and that greater things lie over the horizon.
So, if an individual can indeed altar the crowd, how might we change our behavior today in ways that inspire others to follow our lead? For example, might we do this by caring for our physical selves in noticeable ways: changing our diet, exercising, entering the local 5k? And how about refusing to walk away when we disagree with our neighbor and instead insist on dialogue? And if we stick to it long enough, hold the course despite the temptation to fall back to peloton’s pace, we might just begin to see others break out as well.
What started two thousand years ago with one very special individual breaking away from the crowd has resulted in many massive societal and cultural shifts. And today as we gather as a crowd in this building the gospel reminds us not to get too comfortable, to remember that the Christian message is at its most valuable when it comes alive in the world outside as a beacon of hope to those asleep in the crowd, or at its very least to those whom the crowds reject.
My guess is there are cyclists breaking away from the peloton right now, attempting to ride their way to victory in today’s final stage of the Tour de France. Might they be capturing something of the spirt of today’s Gospel message? How might the world be changed when we, followers of Jesus, boldly decide to do things differently?
Proper 11, Year C