“As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’”- Matthew 25: 5-8
Since 9/11 Americans have become preoccupied with preparedness. We are exhorted to plan for every imaginable disaster, to keep cash and important documents on hand, and to be ready with duct tape and canned food in our homes. In public places ominous announcements remind us to be vigilant at all times and to report all suspicious activity to the authorities. We have certainly become a people full of expectation, but we are always expecting disasters.
The parable of the bridesmaids awaiting the bridegroom encourages a different kind of watchfulness. Here, vigilance is not waiting for disaster but rather waiting for joy and celebration, for the coming of a beloved one. Interpreters have a tendency to import a rather gloomy eschatology to these sorts of parables, but this parable really conveys waiting expectantly for blessing and for good news. Jesus’ coming is a cause for celebration; it is an occasion of liberation, the dawning of a profound peace.
Unfortunately, many Christian communities have lost this hopeful sense of expectation. Safe acts like signing petitions and collecting donations for charity have replaced the risky creative visioning the church is called to do. Perhaps, like those bridesmaids, churches just do not see the point in waiting up while the world slips deeper into disaster. Somewhere along the line, Christians forgot how to eagerly expect the transformation of the world. We fell asleep and our lamps dimmed
Occupy Wall Street has woken me up.
When the church failed to fully express the radical inclusivity of Christ, a community emerged in Zuccotti Park that beautifully embodied a Christian love ethic. While mainline protestant leaders failed to articulate an alternative narrative to our nations emerging oligarchy, hundreds and then thousands of people took to the streets to tell a new story. People of faith have joined the occupation, but we must admit, when those early occupiers showed up on Wall Street, our lamps had gone out. These occupations embody the Christianity taught in progressive seminaries and preached in progressive churches for years, and they embody it in a way the church never fully did. These protests emerged because the voices that once cried out in defense of the poor and marginalized had become ineffective at best, and at worst, silent.
The vision and excitement of the global occupation movement throws into sharp relief how complacent our religious institutions have become. Sadly, most churches have failed to embody the ethic they preach and in doing so have failed in the task of holding our nation accountable to laws of higher morality. Meanwhile, Occupy Wall Street models for the church how meaningful religious life could be. Occupy Wall Street offers an alternative story to prevailing cultural narratives, it seeks to create spaces where new imagining is possible, it is open to newness, it welcomes the stranger. Imagine if the Church really did all that. It might look more like an occupation than the worship we are used to, but perhaps then we would then be ready to embrace the sorts of transformation this planet and its people yearn for.
This text calls humanity to hopeful preparedness, it exhorts the audience to eagerly expect emerging transformation. This weeks gospel text moves us closer to advent, a season of preparation, of eager expectation of the birth of something profoundly new. In advent we rehearse Christian hopefulness, we imagine together an absurd idea: that a small child might change the world. May this coming advent season teach us again how to believe in absurd ideas. May it help us believe that people sleeping on the streets of lower Manhattan will change the course of this nation. Hope is being born in our midst, let’s wake up and light our lamps.
John Allen is a Protest Chaplain at Occupy Wall Street. He is a Master of Divinity Student in New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from Davidson College. He is an ordination candidate in the United Church of Christ Metropolitan Boston Association.