A sermon preached on February 28th, 2010 based upon Philippians 3:17 – 4:1 and Luke 13:31 – 35.
The reading from Paul got me thinking about bicycle riding. I know, I am probably the only the one who made such a connection. Bicycle riding loomed large in my early life; there was a lot of meaning attached to it.
Relative to my peers, I learned to ride somewhat late. I remember feeling some shame about not knowing how to ride; I avoided situations where attention might be called to this fact.
My lateness learning may have had to do with the fact that my Dad didn’t know how to ride a bike, having had an overly protective mother who was afraid of him doing anything in which he might get hurt. So I probably inherited some of that fear. (My father did learn in middle age how to ride a bike.)
Nonetheless, I can still remember that moment when in third grade I finally learned – the ecstasy, the joy, the freedom of suddenly catching the mystery of how to ride a bike. I had a big bike, and it was hard to stop, so I just road up and down the block for an hour until I finally crashed landed in exhaustion. If you know how to ride a bike, you probably remember that first moment as well.
Later on, when I entered adolescence, riding a bicycle was the means by which my world was expanded. David Turner and I were childhood friends. On Saturdays we would ride out of our suburban town, amazed by the fact that sitting on a bike we were able to ride ourselves way out into the country where there were things to see we couldn’t see in our town; cows grazing by the roadside, for instance.
Later when I was fifteen, David, myself and another friend took a month long bicycle trip through New England. It served as something of a “rite of passage,” for us.
Looking back, it seems to me that learning to ride a bike is a great metaphor for the faith walk – the Jesus walk. I played around in my mind with a fantasy world this week, one in which people are issued a bicycle at birth, but where nobody knows how to use one. In my fantasy world they don’t know much about aerodynamics and such, and so for generations the bicycles get used for other purposes – a place to hang laundry as its drying, perhaps.
Or maybe in this fantasy world children instinctively know how to ride, but early on they lose the ability, discouraged perhaps by adults who consider the activity too dangerous… sort of their own personal “fall from the Garden of Eden” experience. I don’t know.
How long would it take before someone would have the vision and the courage to discover how to ride these peculiar things? And once someone did, how would others respond? The Gospel lesson provides a clue, where Jesus laments the age old tradition of Jerusalem killing the prophets sent to them. Perhaps the bike riding innovator would get stoned to death. I don’t know.
Why don’t people catch on to riding the bicycles? Is it because they are too weighed down to even to try – their burdens having names like “shame” and “guilt,” and “fear,” and the stuff that ripples out from these weights, like “resentment” and “hostility.”
So into this fantasy world Jesus appears after his forty days in the wilderness, and from the get-go he’s riding his bike for all its worth. And many marvel in wonder at the extraordinary grace of his bike-riding, but others declared, “You can’t do that!”
From the beginning of Christianity, there has been this understanding that something shifted cosmically when Jesus died on the cross. In the religious practice of the day, the intricacies of the Law made it inevitable that people would accumulate piles of guilt as they went through life. The only way to remove this burden of guilt was to make a long trip (without bicycles) to the Temple in Jerusalem, where they’d shell out money they couldn’t afford to purchase blemish-free animals to hand over to the priests to sacrifice, thereby “atoning” for the guilt they had accumulated. In short order the sins would begin start piling up again, requiring yet another long trip. This would just go on forever, making for a deeply-burdened existence, to say the least.
And so Jesus’ death on the cross was understood to have done away with this endless accumulation of guilt. The “price was paid, once and for all,” the barriers to God and heaven permanently removed. Good news indeed. Without those heavy burdens, it was time to start learning the wonder of bike riding, which is precisely what those who following in “the way” did. The Apostle Paul, for instance.
Some of the language Paul uses in his epistles, however can sound rather oppressive — not exactly an invitation to soar. Take this line from this morning’s letter to the Philippians:
“… I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their belly, and their glory is in their shame. There mind is on earthly things.”
Hearing this, a person might conclude that the Christian life is all about denying yourself enjoyment of the good things to be found on earth. Christians, one might conclude, are supposed to avoid any sort of material pleasure in this life.
But if we think about it, that doesn’t make much sense, because Jesus himself enjoyed the good things of this earth, like good food and good wine and good parties, which he continually is described as being at and talking about. He was even criticized by the Pharisees for not being more like John the Baptist, who apparently was inclined to reject the pleasures of this world.
The idea that faith is like learning to ride a bike is helpful here, because bike riding is all about learning the right balance. You have to be focused, but not tight. The possibility exists of “falling off the bike” in either of two directions. The faith walk is also about balance. You can err on one side by rejecting the good gift of life in this world, and the beauty and pleasure this life affords. Unfortunately, the Church has often fallen off the bike on this side, making the faith walk seem pretty unappealing, to say the least.
But you can also err on the other side, which is where you assume that your salvation is found in the pleasures of this world. When Paul speaks of people whose “minds are on earthly things,” what I think he has in mind is clutching the things of this world out of desperation. Bellies and taste buds are good gifts from God, but as Paul points out, they aren’t god, and there’s is a significant distinction between the two.
Why are we tempted to clutch the things of this world with such desperation? Maybe we are driven to do so by an underlying shame, guilt and fear, which is another way of saying we haven’t taken to heart what Jesus accomplished in his death on the cross. Oppressed by shame and guilt, we flee to food, or alcohol, or drugs, or gambling, or shopping, or whatever form of addiction we are inclined towards. This, I think, is what it means to be an “enemy of the cross.” It is living as though the liberation won by Jesus from ultimate source of the compulsions that drive us wasn’t really won after all.
We miss the “eternal lightness of being” that makes it possible to ride our bikes. Angels, it is said, are able to fly because they don’t take themselves so seriously; they are not weighed down by the burdens we pile upon ourselves in our self-absorption.
Here’s some questions for Lenten self-reflection: Are you, in fact riding your bicycle? If not, can you identify the guilt, shame, fear and resultant hostility and resentment that is keeping your from soaring? What would it mean for you to take seriously the freedom won for you by Jesus on the cross?
How big is your world? Riding the bike of faith involves the discovery that your world is much larger than you had imagined. You are a citizen of heaven, free to roam the endless expanses of God’s kingdom.
For me, a clear indicator that I have “fallen off the bike of faith” is when I look at my heart and realize that I am faking compassion. I am going through the motions of caring about other people, when in fact my world has been reduced to my little preoccupations. It’s as though I don’t seem to have room inside my heart for the concerns of others.
When I realize this has happened, I know that it is time to stop my frantic motion and be still for a while. Usually if I do this, I gradually discover space opening up inside me again. I discover again I really do in fact care about other people. Their pain touches me. I don’t feel as though I necessarily have to take away their pain, because in a lot of cases this is just not possible. But once again there is room in my heart for others. And not only their pain, but their joy as well. Their joy becomes my joy as well. My world gets infinitely largely.
Sometimes it can take a crisis to explode our tiny, trapped world open to the vastness of God’s graciousness. I read a charming little novel a while back entitled, “The Memory of Running”, by Ron McLarty. (Thanks goes to Justin for tracking down the title; I’d lost my copy and couldn’t remember what it was called.) The plot line stayed with me. This guy in his forties has been living in a world that over the years has been getting smaller and smaller. He has a job that doesn’t use his gifts. He lives with his aging parents, drinking himself to sleep each night.
When he was young, he’d been connected to the girl who lived next door. He’d had an older sister whom he looked up to and adored, but after she suffered a series of breakdowns, eventually disappearing altogether, his heart closed down to the girl next door and to everyone else as well.
Early on in the story his parents are killed in a car crash. Hard stuff indeed. But when an old life comes to an end, there is nothing left to do but go forth to created a new life. The man discovers that his long-lost sister has in fact died way out in California, and as the next of kin he must go to claim her remains.
Hung over the morning after his parents’ funeral, he sets out on a whim on a bike he hasn’t ridden since his youth. Without money in his pocket, he just keeps on peddling, slowly making his way across the country. The pounds he has accumulated stuffing himself over the years are slowly shed. Each night he calls the girl next door, describing to her what he’s experiencing on his journey, and the walls of his heart gradually come down as his world gets larger and larger. It’s amazing what riding a bike can do.
“Take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you,” says Paul to the folks in Philippi. When it comes to catching on to the bike-ride of faith, what we need are people who can mentor us. There is only so much you can get out of books; we need people who can model for us the wondrous freedom of faith.
So take note of people you know who seem to know how to stay balanced. Watch the way they appear to trust things will work out when troubles arise. Notice how they have room in their hearts for others. Ponder their ability to give themselves away without worrying about what they will receive back. Marvel at their inner freedom and the joy they carry around.
Hang with them, absorb them, imitate them. When you’re trying to learn how to ride a bike, it’s important to watch others doing it, so if for no other reason, you know it really is possible to do. Try doing what you see them doing, even if at first it feels like you’re just going through the motions. Eventually you may discover that you, too are floating, and the training wheels have come off, and now others are watching you to see how it is done.