From 1995 to the year 2000 I served as the minister at a church in Old Walkerville, in Windsor. Old Walkerville was originally a company town, built and owned by Hiram Walker and his family. They made their fortune in the distillery business, producing whiskey and other spirits. They owned the streets, all the houses, and even the generating station that provided electricity for the homes, and the street lights. They also employed the local garbage collectors, and a private police force that kept the peace.
It may not be a coincidence that the distillery, that is still operating today, was built on the Canadian side of the Detroit River, which forms the border between Ontario and Michigan, between Canada and the U.S. In the days of Prohibition, when the production, sale, and consumption of alcoholic beverages was illegal in the United States, that distillery produced a lot more whiskey than was sold on our side of the border.
Old Walkerville has a colourful history. It is no longer a company town. The city of Windsor took over the public services decades ago. The Walker Estate, which included the family mansion, is now a public park, and their home, Willistead Manor, is rented out for art shows, weddings, and other fancy catered events. There are two churches very close to Willistead Manor. One is Chalmers United Church, where I worked.
The other nearby church is Saint Mary’s Anglican Church. The Walker family built the church and gave it a lot of financial support. It was originally a Methodist church, but after 2 years it was close, and latered re-opened as an Anglican church. Community lore has it that the Walker family preferred the more lenient attitude of the Anglicans about the use of alcohol.
In my first year at Chalmers, which was a former Presbyterian congregation that became part of the United Church in 1925, I got to know an older man named Jerry. He came to see one day to ask if it would be okay if he came to church on Sunday. When I assured him he would be absolutely welcome, he told me that years before, he and his family had been active in the church. They were living just down the street in one of the former company houses that Hiram Walker had built, long since sold to private owners, and Jerry worked at the distillery, helping to maintain the huge boilers.
Jerry had grown up in the church, and because he wanted the same upbringing for his family, he had volunteered first to teach Sunday School, and then to be the Sunday School superintendent. But when a new minister arrived on the scene, and learned that Jerry worked for Hiram Walkers, he had decided that Jerry could not be involved with the Sunday School, or any longer be an elder in the church. He was still welcome to attend, and make his weekly offerings, but he could not be seen as a leader.
Jerry and his family left the congregation. They went down the street to St. Mary’s Anglican Church, the one that whiskey built. He and his wife raised their kids in the Anglican church, and that was where Jerry stayed until a year or two after his wife died. Then he began “keeping company” (Jerry’s way of saying living together) with a woman who was separated from her husband, and the Anglican minister told him that didn’t look right. So Jerry asked if he could come back to the United Church.
He wondered, and worried whether or not he and his new friend would be welcome. She had faced similar disapproving looks in her Roman Catholic parish, partly because her ex was still quite involved in the Knights of Columbus. He would have nothing to do with an annulment of their marriage, and certainly not entertain a divorce. Jerry and Margaret, these two lovely lost souls, cast adrift by their communities of faith, found their way into the church where I served, and were warmly received. Jerry and Margaret never did get married, but a few years later, when Margaret died, we had her funeral at our church, and Jerry sat in the front pew, with his children, and hers.
It is at times like that I am most proud to serve, and be a member of the United Church. It is sometimes said about us that we take anybody. I hope that this is true. Because I think that as far as we are able to be accepting and welcoming, we are being like Jesus.
Our Gospel story this morning is a great illustration of how God’s love can work its way into a situation, and bless and transform people, and relationships, even when from the outside looking in, there are plenty of reasons to write the people off as lost causes.
Jesus was visited a town called Capernaum. He is approached by some local Jewish leaders, who want a favour. They want Jesus to go to home of a Roman centurion, a military official, who was probably in command of the local garrison, and help one of his slaves, who was dying.
The Roman Empire controlled all of its provinces, and conquered lands, with a military presence. The Roman army had the job of keeping the peace, ensuring safe transport routes for trade, and enforcing the collection of taxes. As representatives of a foreign ruling power, they were often hated and feared.
This Centurion seemed to have a different reputation. The Jewish elders appealed to Jesus on behalf of the centurion, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”
At first glance, the centurion reminds me of old Hiram Walker, who built a town and named it after himself, and who built a Methodist church, and then shut it down and turned it into one that better suited his purposes. These Jewish leaders sound like they are impressed with the wealth and power of the centurion.
“Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.”
When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.”
It is not the centurion’s power as a Roman military commander that impresses Jesus, or even the esteem in which he is held by the leaders of the local Jewish community. What Jesus looks for, and sees in the man, is his faith. Jesus looks under the surface, to see what is happening in the person’s heart and soul. Jesus looks for what is real.
Jesus’ willingness to look deeper can inspire us to do the same. We can notice that this Roman military officer had genuine compassion and concern for one of his slaves. We can also notice that he sought the help of an itinerant Jewish preacher and healer. Jesus’ reputation must have reached him. Perhaps some of his teaching has also reached him. He had reason to believe that Jesus would be willing to help a Gentile- a non-Jew.
We might also notice that the Roman centurion was able to recognize that as powerful as he was, he did not have authority over everything. He was open to the possibility that a power greater than him had influence in his life, and in the life of his slave.
These are all ways to say that God was at work in the soul of this Roman centurion. He may have been one of the most unlikely people to be a follower of Jesus.
What does that say to us? I hope it is a reminder to us that our mission, as a community of faithful followers of Jesus, is not only to reach out to people who seem most likely to be hungry and thirsty for the Good News of God’s love. We are here to show God’s love, God’s encouragement, God’s acceptance, even to people who seem unlikely to want it, need it, or believe in it.
Every person is a child of God. Every person is also a work in progress. God finds ways to work within us, to help love grow. Our transformation, our re-creation may be mostly invisible from the outside, but that does not matter. God knows us from the inside, and God knows who we really are, and who we can be. Thanks be to God. Amen