Be Priests: Requiem for Brian McGowan

Most of you will understand that borders and getting across them has been something of a concern of mine in recent weeks. While my experience of travel and quarantine may be exceptional,  crossing borders is actually fundamental to our being here today. 

There are many border crossings in scripture. Israel comes to its land of promise as migrants, then goes into exile and returns again; Jesus, as a child, is a refugee in Egypt; Paul voyages across his world carrying the good news (apparently without quarantine requirements). But the most profound biblical border crossing of all, the one that interprets the others for us, is the one recounted in the Gospel today. As John says, the Word became flesh; that is, Jesus himself crosses the border between divine life and human existence to find us. 

Another biblical image or idea used to describe this process of traveling, crossing and connecting is priesthood. A priest is not necessarily a pastor or administrator, not always a preacher or teacher, although they might be these things. To call someone a priest is essentially to say they are called to cross the border between God and the world, interceding on the world's behalf and offering reconciliation on God's behalf. The priests of the Bible - Aaron and Melchizedek, Zechariah the father of John, Judas Maccabaeus, don't all travel huge physical distances to do their work, but all have the task of crossing eternity day by day, mediating between God and God's people as they offer sacrifices and prayers,  bearing the needs of one, carrying back the good news of the other.  Jesus, too, acts as a go-between who pays a price, a sacrifice, for his pilgrimage into human life and experience, losing all but gaining us all as his family, winning back the world God loves more than we know.

Priests, then, are daily travelers and pilgrims between the worlds of love and need, reality and possibility, God and world. They cross this border as their vocation; they are called always to live between worlds, with one foot in the world of human need and the other in the realm of divine love.

We are here of course to commend one Brian McGowan, priest in the Church of God, to the God whom he served. Everyone here knew him as a priest. Of course Anglicans use this word for those who offer a particular kind of ministry in the Church, but priesthood is something more fundamental than that, and something that extends well beyond the ordained. We not only call ordained ministers priests,  we call the church as a whole a "royal priesthood," called to serve God. 

Brian was of course a priest - since this is a sermon not a eulogy, I will not elaborate on what his ordained ministry constituted or achieved; for that I merely invite you to look around you. Yet I wanted to say something about him to illustrate something about this idea of priesthood - not of ordained or professional or pastoral ministry, but of priesthood in the sense that encompasses us all. 

My father was born into loving but a humble family; his father the printer, his mother the domestic, doing their work with pride but no expectation of higher education or different society. My father's life was changed when a primary school teacher, seeing something extra there, had him sit for an exam whose nature he didn't really understand at the time, but which propelled him into something of a social experiment. Educational reformer Sir James Darling, then headmaster of Geelong Grammar School, wanted to recruit gifted locals regardless of economic circumstance to study alongside the sons of the squattocracy who were the usual inhabitants of the place. Thus my father found himself at that School at the same time as Roderick Carnegie, Rupert Murdoch, Hugh Morgan, and Kerry Packer - being no monarchist he shed no tears that he was a few years too early for Prince Charles. 

The observant will already note some dissonance between these names and your experience of Brian. While this experience gave him at least to some extent the capacity to walk in both worlds, not least of working and ruling classes, his interest in the latter was tepid at best. I would go so far as to say he remained uncomfortable with the privilege this experience thrust upon him. He was, as a result, perhaps not quite at home in either place. Yet this educational opportunity was fundamental to the fact that he could become first a teacher, and then a priest. 

And it was also because of the Geelong Grammar experience that he came to active Christian faith, with a particular cast to it. Geoffrey Sambell, then Director of the Brotherhood of St Lawrence, visited and recruited students as volunteers for the Brotherhood's outreach work with marginalized youth. It was this practical manifestation of the Gospel among those in unmistakeable need that became the door, the border, to Brian's own active Christian faith, and which offered one path to the reconciliation of the opposites, this world of privilege and his older and truer home, less among "the proud in the imagination of their hearts" but with "the humble and meek."

This concrete example of how his own priestly calling was worked out may function as a parable for the rest of us. A priest - meaning all of us - can't just be an insider, but is always someone who lives in two worlds. Brian was, we know, a priest, not only as one who faithfully ministered in God's Church, but  because he knew that priesthood meant walking in and between two worlds, not just the different worlds created by Australian society but in the deeper sense of bearing the needs of the world to a loving God and the love of God to a world which needs it.

My point is not to interpret his life but to interpret yours, and mine. When the First Letter of Peter calls us all "a royal priesthood [to] proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light," it suggests not only that priesthood is our common calling, but necessarily that Christian faith and discipleship are for something other than our own personal faith or benefit. We all stand, not just as beneficiaries of grace, but between God and the world interceding just as the ancient priests stood at altars offering sacrifice on behalf of all the people, just as the Word became flesh, crossing the border between two worlds. 

The work of the Gospel is the reconciliation to God of a world which often shows the signs of its distance from God's love: in its injustice, its inhumanity, its self-centeredness. This leaves those who respond to the Gospel themselves between two worlds, traveling here as pilgrims as we seek another city, constantly crossing the borders between human need and divine grace. This is the essence of a priesthood that shares in the priesthood of Jesus: be Priests. Take risks, cross borders, take down barriers, show God's love to the world. Be priests.

[Sermon preached at Christ's Church, Mandurah, Friday December 3rd 2021]


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