Breaking Away from the Peloton
‘Tis the season for the Tour de France. This is the legendary bicycle race throughout some of 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 day nine of the 2022 tour and right this moment riders are making their way through central France towards some big climbs in the Alps. 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 can be demoralizing to know that the second you step out on your own, the group wants to pull you right back in.
In today’s passage from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus gives the “greatest commandment,” that is, to love God with heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. And then when pressed for details by an audacious individual, Jesus tells a story. A traveler on the road is accosted by robbers, he’s beaten and left for dead. Three men pass by. The first is a priest, the second, a Levite, and the third a Samaritan. The first two men ignore the beaten man and pass by on the other side of the road. The Samaritan, on the other hand, is moved with pity. He bandages the man’s wounds, puts him up in an inn, and insures that he will be nursed back to health. The Samaritan, the one who shows mercy, is lifted up as the quintessential neighbor. “Go and do likewise,” says Jesus.
As a modern hearer of this gospel, Jesus’ expectations of our behavior towards one another are quite clear. The Samaritan did the right thing, while the other two, well, they’re easy to dislike. One might even classify their behavior as being inhuman. But, there is a catch here. 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. Whereas a Samaritan is culturally considered to be an outsider, a nobody.
You see, what Jesus has masterfully done here in the telling of this story is not only give a fine real world example of what loving your neighbor looks like, but he has also convicted the crowd. His words have some sting. Although the hearers of Jesus’ story might not like to admit it, the behavior displayed by the first two passersby was not inhuman, but rather very human.
Why pay attention to the people on the side of the road when you’re comfortable right where you are? It’s easier, after all, to be one of the crowd. You can move through life more efficiently, more aerodynamically, so to speak. Just do your part to tow the line and you’ll be fine. Accept the Roman authority, endure the corruption of the tax collectors, stand by as the “have nots” are tread upon, and live to do it again tomorrow. But I’m not sure that “being fine” is the goal Jesus has in mind for his followers. He wants something more of us.
God has given us the power and the authority to make a physical difference in this world, and the work often begins with our decision to break away from the crowd.
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? We don’t have to be elite cyclists. We don’t even need to know how to ride a bike. As Christians, though, we do know how to be in relationship, to love our neighbors as ourselves. In a divided world such as this, how about, for example, we put this into practice by 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 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 Tour de France stage. 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