There’s a story that’s been told about a spiritual seeker who goes to visit one of the early desert fathers, a hermit known for his wisdom.When he arrives, the man is sitting outside his cave enjoying the sun, with his dog lying close to his side.
The seeker asks his question; asks, “Why is it that some who seek God come to the desert and are zealous in prayer, but leave after a year or so, while others, like you, remain faithful to the quest for a lifetime?”The old man responds, “One day my dog and I were sitting here quietly in the sun, as we are now. Suddenly, a large white rabbit ran across in front of us. Well, my dog jumped up, barking loudly, and took off after that big rabbit. He chased the rabbit over the hills with a passion. Soon, other dogs joined him, attracted by his barking. What a sight it was, as the pack of dogs ran barking across the creek, up stony embankments, and through thickets and thorns! Gradually, however, one by one, the other dogs dropped out of the pursuit, discouraged
by the course and frustrated by the chase. Only my dog continued to hotly pursue the white rabbit.” Confused, the young man asks, “What is the connection between the rabbit chase and the quest for God?” The hermit replies, “Why didn’t the other dogs continue the chase? They had not seen the rabbit.” They were only attracted by the barking of the dog. But once you see the rabbit, you will never give up the chase. Seeing the rabbit, and not following the commotion, was what kept the old monk in the desert.”
When I came across this story, I knew it was a perfect fit for my sermon this week.I mean who doesn’t love a story about the spiritual lessons we can learn from animals on a day when we’re about to bless some animals?!?
But there’s a reason I chose this story of the dogs and the rabbit beyond its tie-in to the pet blessings we’ll do today, because it speaks to something so true in our lives and in the world around us today.There’s a lot of noise.There’s a lot of commotion.In the world, and even in the church.We might find ourselves caught up in the midst of it for awhile, but eventually the commotion itself won’t be enough and we’ll wonder what we’re really doing, what it is we’re seeking.
Are all of our energies, all of our efforts directed toward something real, something that matters, or are they just going through the motions, keeping up with those around us?Doing things because that is the thing to be done, rather than because of any real motivation.These are often the times when we wonder about the meaning of our actions, of our very lives, and when these questions arise for us, we start to understand why all those dogs in the monk's story gave up on the chase. But
then there’s the one dog in the story, the monk’s dog, who is able to keep going, not because he’s better or stronger or faster than all the other dogs, but because he was the one with a reason to run.
And I find myself wondering what it is that keeps so many of us going, still coming here, still seeking to live a life of faith, when so many have tired of the commotion.
To me, the answer has to do with hope, but not just any kind of hope.Because the other dogs in the monk’s story hoped to catch that rabbit at some point too.But the monk’s dog kept going long after the others had given up because he had experienced for himself something worth hoping in.
This is the kind of hope we need right now.An experience of God that sustains our hope, when there is so much evidence to the contrary, when the world is something you no longer recognize, when all seems to be in chaos and disarray.
This is what the world was like for the prophet Habakkuk, whose words we heard just a few minutes ago.Scholars believe he wrote between Babylonian attacks on Jerusalem, after the invasion in 597 BCE but before they destroyed the temple and took the Israelites into exile in 587.
Habakkuk was living under occupation, living a world he no longer recognized.A world in which violence and injustice reigned supreme, in which strife and contention abounded, and the laws no longer seem to matter.
And in these circumstances, Habakkuk does my favorite thing to do when the world feels this way—he yells at God.
“Oh Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? OR cry to you “Violence!” And you will not save? Whyyyyy do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble?”
These are prayers of lament, the prayers that don’t always feel very nice or very holy, and yet they are REAL.What’s more, they are evidence of a relationship that’s more than just the polite niceties, a relationship that can take it when you express how you truly feel.
And when you have that kind of realness in your relationship with God, hope takes on a different tenor.It’s not some polyannish assumption that everything will work out ok.It’s an expectation of what’s to come because of what you already know, an expectation of faithfulness because of the faithfulness you have already known.
Habakkuk addresses God as one who has seen and experienced what God can do.And so he addresses God with confidence, and with that same confidence he waits for God to act.
“I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint.”
There’s something about the tone of this that I just love.Maybe it’s because I’m the parent of young children and I find myself saying things like this so often to my kids “I’m going to stand right here until you do what you know you should do.”There’s a firmness to it, a can’t-be-ruffled-by-what’s-going-on steadiness to it, and when it’s being said to the God of all creation, there’s just a touch of challenge too.
It’s a defiant kind of hope, a hope that says “I know what you can do God, so I’m just going to wait right here until you do it.”
And he waits. And then God responds to Habakkuk:
I still have a vision.If it seems like it’s taking a long time, wait for it.Live by this faith.
In God’s speech to Habakkuk, faith is characterized by this kind of defiant hope grounded in our experience of God.
Faith is not something we believe as an intellectual construct, but a way we live.Faith is living as if another way is possible, something other than what the world has to offer.We hold onto irrational hope because we have seen a different way the world could be, because of our experience of God.As Christians, we have our particular model in the person of Jesus Christ.
This was the model that inspired the man whose feast day we celebrate today, St. Francis of Assisi.Francis walked away from a comfortable life to take up one that more closely resembled that of Jesus, a wandering preacher with nowhere to lay his head.
Francis had profound experiences of the presence of God in his life, and set out to live according to a faith that said the ways of the world around him were not the way the world should be.And the witness he bore to the community around him, that continues to inspire people to this day, was not one of confrontation, but of hope.
His was a witness of simplicity and care for the world around him, deeply rooted in his experience of God.Francis recognized that God was not something only to be found in church, but in everything and everyone.This vision of God’s presence in all things is why he became the patron saint of animals, and why we bless animals when we remember him today.
He did not try to dismantle the powers of the world around him, but like Jesus, and like Habakkuk before him, he patiently and steadfastly lived out a hopeful vision for how the world could be.
We heard just last Sunday from our Coffee Hour Forum speaker what this looks like today, when Sara Salomons from Journey Home said that “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.”This was Francis’s strategy too.
When we live with this kind of hope, the world notices.It’s a hope rooted in our experience of God, that allows us to take one faith-filled step forward at a time, not because we know how everything is going to turn out, but because we trust in the God we already know that we are headed toward something better.In a recent statement, Pope Francis, who took his papal name in honor of Francis of Assisi, said that “Faith is not a light that scatters the darkness, but a lamp that guides our steps in the night.”
When things seem dark, when we’re not sure what to do or where to go, our faith allows us to keep going, one step forward at a time, because we are bearers of a hope that cannot be shaken.We may not know how it’s all going to work out, but we know the God who does.And that’s enough of a reason to keep going, even if all others around us give up the chase.
. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ) (Kindle Locations 9218-9229). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.