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March 22, 2024

Sisters and Brothers,

A Prayer for Owen Meaney is a novel by John Irving. It is narrated by John, an American expatriate living in Canada. He tells the story of his best friend, Owen, a small boy with a broken voice. Throughout, the novel is informed by religious themes, and John being an Episcopalian by upbringing and now an Anglican in Canada those themes ring familiar notes. The novel contains one of the funniest scenes in American literature in which Owen, because he is so small even as a young adolescent, is cast as the baby Jesus in the Christmas pageant. I will spare you the lurid details that mock Episcopalians and celebrate uncontrollable teenage hormones, but it would make you laugh to tears.

 John does take time to speak of how Owen, who dies during the Vietnam War, still impacts his life – his politics, his solitude, his chosen life away from home, and his faith. John speaks poignantly about Holy Week and Easter. He speaks of a raw, cold, rainy Palm Sunday and the acolytes huddled in the Narthex with their palm fronds. Owen, his childhood friend, hated Palm Sunday, “the treachery of Judas, the cowardice of Peter, the weakness of Pilate.” John writes about his own draining anxiety during Holy Week – no matter how many times he has lived through the crucifixion, he worries that somehow, this year, the resurrection won’t follow.

 I first read this novel 30 years ago, and Owen’s frustration with Palm Sunday and John’s anxiety during Holy Week remain deeply felt for me.

 Lay people may not know that the folks most familiar with how “un-church-like” the church can be are the clergy. I have stories. And one of the ways in which we a most “un-church-like” is our busy-ness. There is so much “to do” – bulletins and linens and volunteers and flowers. There is so much “to worry about” – is there enough paper and printer toner and what will the weather be like and what about the fire at the Vigil. And we clergy make a thing about it. We get sucked into this idea that we are SO busy and SO burdened by the season. When the truth of the matter is we are ALL BUSY, and are busy most of the time. And I have asked before and will ask again what gets lost in the busy-ness? What are avoiding in the rush?

 Could “All glory, laud, and honor” and “Ride on, ride on in majesty” just mask our anger and fear and disdain and confusion when we sing “Hosanna” in one breath and “Crucify him” in the next? How do we walk out of a silent and darkened church with the altar stripped bare and the words of the condemned one, “Love as I have,” ringing in our ears and not want to stop everything because of our heartbreak? How can we ponder an instrument of execution as a sign of victory, knowing that human sin, our sin, built it and hung him on it, and not worry that this year maybe Love won’t conquer all?

 I pray often that there were more time to embrace John and Owen’s wisdom and let ourselves feel the pain and fear, the anger and indignation, the contrition and loss that imbue Holy Week. I pray often that Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday will be more than “another church service that I should go to.” And you are busy and sometimes the best and only thing you can muster is to just show up in the middle of all the busy-ness. And so I pray often that whenever and however you find your way to worship this coming week, that God will break into your busy-ness and allow you to live with Owen’s incredulity and John’s sorrow. I pray, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, for your hearts to be broken, your fear and remorse to be gripping, and your hopes and trust to be laid at the foot of the Cross.

 Hope to see you in church. Peace,