Five years ago, when I was in Wales on sabbatical, I went to church one Sunday with my sheep-shearing friend Eifion and his wife Jane. Eifion is not much of a church-goer, so I was surprised as we walked out after worship when he said, “That was a good sermon.”
My colleague Peter has taught me to be curious when I hear that kind of remark. Maybe I could learn something about good preaching from Eifion. I asked him, “What made it good?”
“It was short,” Eifion replied.
When I was in seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, I had a professor who liked to wander from the topic at hand. He would go off on tangents, most of which were quite entertaining, until we had wandered so far from the path that any relationship to where we started was virtually impossible to discern. Then he would kind of “come to,” shake his head, and declare, “Well, that was a real rabbit chase.”
It was the first time I heard the Southern expression, “chasing rabbits.” It means getting distracted or taking off in an irrelevant and usually unproductive direction. I have been known to chase a few rabbits myself in the course of my preaching or teaching. Rabbit chasing can sometimes take over a whole Bible study hour, as we go off merrily in a direction completely unrelated to the text at hand. Rabbit chasing can also make long sermons even longer.
But as my friend Eifion reminds me, and my colleague Peter reinforces, and my congregation also knows, sometimes shorter is better. So last Sunday, when my sermon had gone on a while, I dropped my final illustration. Ironically, the story I dropped at the end was about chasing rabbits. And since it is hard for us preachers to have a good sermon illustration and just “let it go,” and since a different kind of “rabbit chasing” is what I think we Christians are called to in these days, I offer you that story now.
The story comes from the early centuries of Christianity, when devoted hermits would go out to the desert seeking an isolated place where they could pursue prayer and a simple way of life. As the story goes, one day a young pilgrim came to one of these desert ascetics and asked, “Why is it that some who seek God come to the desert and last only a year or so, while others, like you, remain faithful for a lifetime?”
The teacher smiled and answered, “One day I was sitting in meditation and prayer, when a rabbit ran by. My dog (apparently even ascetics find comfort in the company a dog provides) immediately jumped up and, barking, took off after the rabbit. Pretty quickly other dogs were attracted by the barking and joined in the pursuit (there must have been other ascetics nearby with their own dogs!). They followed the rabbit, through the brush and thorns and across the desert, until one by one, hot, thirsty, tired and discouraged, all the other dogs dropped out. Finally it was just my dog who had the energy to continue the chase.”
The student sat for a while before the teacher until finding the courage to say, “I don’t understand. What does your dog chasing a rabbit have to do with dedication to a spiritual practice?”
The teacher answered, “When the work got hard, all the other dogs dropped out, discouraged, because they had only heard the barking. They only knew the rumor of what they were seeking. But my dog was able to keep going because my dog had seen the rabbit.”
“Do not grow weary in doing good,” Paul tells the church in Galatia, “for in due season we will reap, if we do not grow tired.” (Galatians 6:9)
I believe the work we are to be doing as followers of Jesus is hard work. “Stay awake,” we are told during this season of Advent. “Watch for God’s presence.” But in these days when hate and fear seem to be everywhere, it is easy to get exhausted. How shall we find the strength to keep going?
The point, of course, is for us to “see the rabbit.” We are called to live out the power of Love in ways that demonstrate the strength of community. We are called to reject the messages of fear that keep us from confronting racism, or sexism, or misogyny, or anti-Muslim hate speech. We are called to practice compassion so much that compassion becomes our automatic response to what we encounter in the world.