Saint Julia

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Bantam on November 6, 2011.
When All Saints Day comes around I usually do the same thing every year: I say that All Saints-tide is a time for stories,  that it’s like a family reunion  at the end of the year when we gather together and tell stories  about our family  and especially about members of the family  no longer able to be with us physically but members who are worth remembering and telling stories about them because of the impact they made on our family and because of the example they gave us  in some special way.  Over the years I’ve told stories about lots of them, people of every race and nation and century, who were part of our family, some of whom died only recently and some who died long ago, but all departed this life, all men and women of another age.

This year, I want to do something a little different.  Instead of telling you stories about past saints, I thought today might be a time  for telling you about future saints:  Saint Julia, for example.  That future begins in a few minutes.  In just a few minutes there will be a new saint, a small one, I’ll admit, but a real one all the same.  Because, you see, saints are not made by popes.  The ceremony and hoopla of a canonization in Rome changes nothing; it only calls attention officially  to something that happened long ago and that most people already know about.  It says that Francis of Assissi  or Julian of Norwich was somebody special  and it’s time we took official notice.  But it doesn’t make them a saint.  That happened long before when someone took them to the font and someone poured water on them and said. “Francis, or Julian, I baptize you  in the Name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  And that’s exactly the same thing we will do this morning.  This is, we might say, a real canonization, “the making of a saint,”  and you are here to see it.

Today we will give Julia her name  – a name not that different from the name of Julian of Norwich, a woman who lived in England in the 14th century and is still a role model for us all. But this time the name is Julia and we might as well also give her the title too:  “St. Julia.”  This is where it all begins.  Not the halo. That comes later.  But saints are like any other people.  They begin small and they grow.  Some grow faster and some more slowly. Usually they grow in spurts, very unevenly, and sometimes they stop growing for long periods of time.  Some even die.  But once a saint, always a saint. We’re starting something here we can’t stop because God will be doing it, quietly most of the time, hardly visible to most of us, but continuing to make a difference in Julia’s life.

What I’ve usually done at All Saints-tide as I said, is tell stories  and that’s what I plan to do today.  Tell stories about a future saint, about Julia, St. Julia.  And the only problem is that it’s a little dangerous to give too many details in advance.  And certainly there will be times when her parents will really wonder whether what we did here really “took.” St. Julia!  He must have been kidding! But you have to be patient. It’ll happen slowly but it will happen. So look ahead.

I could tell you about the time, for example, when Julia came home from Church School  in about the year 2017 and told her parents the story the teacher had told their class and how impressed her parents were that she remembered it so well.  It actually made them go look it up themselves in the Bible and see whether Julia had it right – and she did! And then they talked about it for awhile as a family.  That was a big day because it was probably the first real sign of God being at work in Julia’s life.  Of course, it was a still a small sign which her parents didn’t even remember afterwards.  But God works so quietly that that often happens and no one stopped to think that back in 2011 they had prayed that God would “open her heart to God’s grace and truth.”  They asked God to make a saint and God was doing it even though  nobody really noticed.  There were weeks when they didn’t even go to church  but when they did it always seemed as if something stuck, something happened, it made an impact.

But anyway, the years went by and Julia was in Junior High and going around with some other kids who were, well, not bad kids, but maybe  a little more trouble than most.  One day one of them got hold of some of that new drug they were using  back toward the end of the 2020s. some new chemical that everyone was trying and they invited Julia to join in a party one of the group was planning.  And she really wanted to go, wanted to be with her friends, but on the other hand  she had this funny feeling, not somehow feeling quite right about it, and so she didn’t go at the last minute, she made some kind of excuse and stayed home that night.  Her parents thought it was kind of funny that she didn’t even ask about going out that weekend but they had long ago  stopped trying to figure out this young teen ager in the family so they just kept quiet about it.  They forgot that they themselves  had placed this young woman in God’s hands fifteen years earlier and said,  “Keep her separate: ‘Deliver her, O Lord,  from the way of sin and death;  Fill her with your holy and life giving spirit …’” And probably they even forgot how the preacher that day had talked about how the word “saint” means “separate” among other things:  separate, set apart, belonging to God, different.  “Once you put someone in God’s bands,” he said, “they are always a little different,  a little separate; they don’t quite identify with the rest of the world.  It’s as if they had a different agenda.”  And that’s tough for a kid in Junior High, it’s tough at any age.  But that’s how you know it’s God at work when you see it happen, when you feel it happen.  God makes us different, God gives us a new identity,  and sometimes it shows.  Sometimes you can really see it.

There was another time too.  Let me see if I can fit in one more story.  It was along about the year 2038, I think, not long after Julia was married.     She met this guy from Massachusetts and moved up there. She’d been married maybe two or three years and it wasn’t going all that well.  She and her husband both had jobs and there was a lot of pressure on them and they didn’t always have time  to get things sorted out.  They were trying to save enough to buy a house, and suddenly they found out a baby was on the way  and the tension was just too much.  There were nights when it seemed as if there were constant arguments and no matter what either one said  it just seemed to make it worse.  They just couldn’t seem to communicate, to understand each other.  And one day she’d had enough and just walked out, just got in the car and drove.  At first she just wanted to get some space but then she thought she ought to go somewhere and she had a friend down in Waterbury so she went there and they talked,  they talked for hours.  She told her friend how terrible it was and all the arguments and fights they’d had and the friend said,  “Well, why put up with it if you don’t have to?  Why not just walk away from it and get a separation and just get your life back under control.  Take charge of your life.  You’ve got to take care of number one.  You don’t have to put up with all that garbage.”  And put that way, it made a lot of sense and she decided to do it.  She went out and got in the car  and started driving home back up to Massachusetts. But it was a Friday and traffic was slow and somehow as the miles went by it all seemed to get mixed up again.  It wasn’t all that clear after all.  But the car kept on going somewhere, going home, and after awhile  it was almost as if she too, was heading somewhere,  almost as if she had a sense of being pulled, being guided.  I don’t think she probably ever knew  that the priest at her baptism  had talked about a saint  as someone who has a calling, a vocation, someone called sometimes even to suffer  for the sake of others and for the sake of getting to the place where God wants them to be.  But somehow the friend who laid out the alternatives  so clearly had really helped clarify things and when her husband got home she was there and they had a really good conversation for the first time in months and agreed they both needed to cool it a bit, try a little harder  to see another way of looking at things, be a little more patient. It wasn’t anything very specific but somehow after that it went a little better . . . not always, of course, but a good part of the time.

St. Julian of Norwich said once that God never promised “you will not be tempested, you will not be travailed” but God promised “you will not be overcome.” Sometimes it seemed that way for St. Julia also.

Later that year, the baby was born  and they came to the church for a baptism  and the priest talked about how holiness isn’t a matter of halos but perseverance  and taking the small steps one by one that add up to a difference that matters.  More than anything else, he said, God’s gift of grace makes that difference – sometimes so quietly we hardly notice – and bring us to good place we could never get to by ourselves.

Well, I could go on, but you realize I have to keep the details vague at this point. But that’s the story – or something like that – or maybe I should say, that will be the story.  It’s not very exciting because God likes to work in the background and not be noticed. But where God is at work,  good things happen. God makes us better people than we might have been left to our own devices, makes us different, holy, and changes the world one life at a time.

And one final word.  We hear the stories of past and future saints to learn from their example  and find some help for ourselves because no saint is up on a pedestal all alone.  Saints, above all, are people involved with God and with God’s people.  So Julia’s story will be shaped by our stories and ours by hers,  because we are all saints together and we are all involved in each other’s stories and God is at work in all of us to write more stories and to make more saints.

1 Comment

LibbyNovember 8th, 2011 at 3:11 pm

Dad, what a lovely sermon! And what a gift to Julia and her family–and to all of us who need a little reminding every now and then.

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