The Advent readings for this year are Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44; Romans 13:11-14. In Romans Paul tells the church to 'wake up'. Attentiveness is central to the Advent season. Isaiah points to the mountain of God to which the nations will flow for wisdom and justice. The question becomes how we can shake our naiveties and illusions without buying into every conspiracy theory and fear-based message. Here is an excerpt from my sermon on the role of mental illness, neighbour and reality.
Our society carries a great untapped resource in learning how to emerge from a state of slumber and gain clarity about the world around us. For those who have personally experienced or walked along side someone who has a serious mental illness the analogy of living in a dream-like state can ring true. In many expressions of depression, schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder a person can begin to experience various forms of hallucinations in which thoughts, sights, sounds or just feelings are experienced as real even though they are not actually occurring around them. At first these experiences are often assumed to be real or true and so they are treated that way. This is why people’s actions can appear strange at times, they are responding to a different set of experiences then many of us are. In Hollywood hallucinations are depicted in the most exaggerated way. And while this may be some people’s experience it is certainly not the only one. The experience can often be very subtle and blend easily into the environment of the person. Or perhaps they are not specific and just a certain perspective or feeling about the world around them. For many of us and I would actually argue all of us reality is not simple and straightforward.
In the midst of mental illness people usually recognize that something is not right but often it is someone around them that needs to help them realize and address the space they are in. The process of discovering this, of beginning to wake up from that dream carries mixed emotions. People can be relieved to know that they are not alone in experiencing this. But on the other hand this discovery leads them to recognize that perhaps they cannot completely trust their senses. The weight of this realization should not be underestimated and is crucial for us to understand. Being awake and alert to the reality around someone experiencing this becomes a relational event. It is important for someone who has experienced hallucinations or any altered sense of reality to know that there are people around them that they can trust to discern what is happening around them.
And so Paul calls the church, the community of believers in Rome, to be roused from their slumber. I am convinced that if we desire to hear the same call then we must begin to ask ourselves how each one of us are hearing and speaking the words that will wake us up from the some the false realities that we have accepted. How can we create a space that does not dictate uniform beliefs but will remain vigilant and alert against harmful illusions? Are we willing to trust each other enough not be offended when someone is calling us out of that comfortable spot in our bed and, on the other hand, are we sufficiently humble and convicted in the words we speak to each other? Are we willing to except that we suffer from spiritual illness?
. . .
Being awake means being aware of your neighbour. St. Antony the monk once wrote, “Our life and our death is with our neighbour. If we win our neighbour, we win God. If cause our neighbour to stumble, we have sinned against Christ.”
This is similar to Isaiah’s criticism.
Now then, listen, you lover of pleasure,
lounging in your security
and saying to yourself,
'I am, and there is none besides me.'
We need to know our neighbour so that we can know Christ. If we do not listen to our neighbour we will doze off to sleep again.
So we must be humble and except that perhaps we do not see things clearly. And like someone going through a trauma or mental illness we need to learn to trust one another to keep each other awake and call us out from those places that lull us into sleep, isolation and apathy. We must learn to diagnosis or spiritual illnesses and the illusions they produce. We need to hear concerns about the increased difficulty in providing affordable housing. We need to hear those who have experienced the increasing instability of the job market. We need to listen carefully as people explain the consequences of our lifestyles and purchases. We need to ask hard questions about how our lives affect our neighbours. We will not stay awake if we live life without regard for our neighbour.
This is the basic Advent message. Pay attention as Christ comes and moves in the midst of our neighbours. This is not a message of works. We cannot solve the world’s problems. This is why Paul spent so much time talking about faith before he told them to wake up. Christ came to establish the mountain of God above all other hills and so our calling is to come down from our individual high hills and journey to the mountain of God where justice and wisdom flow. This Christmas season we will not see Christ if we remain on our high hills. We must come down and gather together first in the valley as it will lead to the mountain of God. And then gathered together there we can make way for the saviour who has come, who is present among us and who will come again. We make way for Christ in our minds and in our actions. We make way for Christ as he comes in our neighbours. This Christmas season we are called to make a place Christ in our homes and in our lives. Keep watch and stay alert in this age because Paul tells us that our salvation is nearer now then when we first believed. The night is nearly over. The day is almost here. Stay awake. Keep watch in faith and journey with your neighbour in the valley and in the storm as we travel with Christ to the mountain of God.