A Sermon on John 11.1-45 “Lord, if you had been here”: Genevieve, Paris, and Attila the Hun

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St. Genevieve (422-512) is the patron saint
of Paris, France.

                                            The Rev. Genevieve Nelson has been the deacon at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Norfolk, Virginia, for a little over a year.

In the best-known story about Saint Genevieve,  Attila the Hun was preparing to march on Paris. The citizens were in a panic, laying hold of whatever they could pack quickly in order to flee the city.  Genevieve approached them and asked them to first try prayer and fasting, asking for God’s protection.

As the legend goes, Attila led his troops around the city, and Paris was spared.

Genevieve is variously pictured holding bread, candles, keys, or a book.
She is one among many patrons against plague, disasters, and fever.

My friend, Genevieve says she was drawn to  the deaconate, rather than the priesthood, because deacons are the people who take the church into the streets, who give the church its hands and feet. The deacons are the patrons against plague, disasters, and fever. The Reverend Genevieve Nelson is a deacon. She arrives carrying nourishment and light and the keys to the kingdom.

On the 16th of April 2016 at Christ Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, Bishop Herman Hollerith IV, ordained Genevieve Nelson as a deacon in the Episcopal Church. The next day, Genevieve posted this photograph on Facebook.



I first met Genevieve Nelson in 2012 at a book club sponsored jointly by the Episcopal Church of the Ascension and Talbot Park Baptist Church in Norfolk, Virginia. We were both members of Ascension, Genevieve more active than I.  I don’t  know what this very young woman made of me, but I liked her immensely right away.

After her ordination, and an internship at another Norfolk Church, her first placement as a deacon was at Good Shepherd on February 14 2016.

She preaches usually every three weeks.  I am grateful to have attended 8:00 Eucharist on April 2nd of this year, when Genevieve preached on the line from John’s Gospel in the story of Jesus’ raising of his friend, Lazarus, from the dead.

The church bulletin read:
“Lord if you had been here” (John 11:1-45)
The Rev. Genevieve Nelson, Deacon

I was struck, first and as always, by the simple fact of Genevieve’s dramatic beauty–her skin just brushed with color, her hair in long dreadlocks, her eyes clear and wide awake, always looking directly into the eyes of anyone to whom she is speaking, everything about her intensely alive. I have met no one quite like her.  And her excitement about being a deacon is palpable.  She loves this unpaid and–no matter how many hours get logged in–full time job.

When I asked Genevieve how she was feeling about her ministry at this point, her answer was

“I just feel that it’s who I am, I’m growing into who God is calling me to be.”

Please pray with me:

May the words of my mouth

and the meditations of our hearts

find favor in your sight.

You are our rock and our redeemer.

“Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”

Jesus heard these words three times that day he went to raise Lazarus.

Both Mary and Martha spoke them verbatim at separate meetings,

and even the crowd asked shouldn’t the one who healed a man’s blindness

have been able to stop his friend from dying of an illness.

Of course we continue to use these ancient words:

Lord, if you had been here

my son would not be sick;
my parents would not have abused me;
addiction would not have destroyed my friend’s life;
I would not have lost my job or my house;
my child/my parent/my sibling/my friend/ my spouse would not have died;
Trayvon Martin would not have died and neither would have Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner,Tamir Rice, and all of the unnamed broken black bodies sacrificed at the altar of law and order.

Lord, if you had been here children would not go hungry
and there would be no war in Syria.

I take comfort that “Jesus wept.”

I don’t picture his tears as quiet and dignified; No, I think there were streams running down his face, with snot dripping from his nose,
his mouth in the shape of a rubber band letting out a wail that gripped the hearts of those in the crowd around him.

Jesus loved his friend Lazarus and he felt the loss of that friendship cut through him like a river carving a canyon through stone.

He was fully human and fully capable of feeling the extent of human suffering because he shared in our finite experience.

I think Langston Hughes said it best in his poem “the negro speaks of rivers”:

“I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”

Last Sunday the disciples were preoccupied with finding what sin the blind man or his parents had done to justify his blindness.

Jesus however tries to help them see that the blindness was an opportunity to show God’s glorious work of healing.

There was no reason or cause for the man’s blindness, just as Job was neither the reason

nor the cause of his suffering.

There is no rhyme nor reason as to why some folk live a life deep like a river and why some live one shallow like a brook;

I think it could just be luck.

When Job cried out to God,
he asked why God made human beings if we were to suffer so.

God responded by asking Job where he was when God laid the foundation of the earth;

or what Job knows about making horses (as my friend Dean Robertson would say).

Like Job, Martha and Mary both look to Jesus for answers:

“Lord, if you had been here
my brother would not have died”

Jesus responds by weeping.

This Sunday the disciples continue to be distracted, focusing on the dangers of visiting Lazarus. The last time they were in Judea they narrowly escaped being stoned. Returning could be a death sentence.

Jesus however knows his hour has not yet come; once again he tries to reframe his disciples’ minds to see Lazarus’ death as an opportunity for God to work in the world, for God’s glory to be known.

And known it is, for many in the crowd believe Jesus after they see him raise Lazarus.
They obey him when he tells them to unbind Lazarus.

“Unbind him and let him go” should be heard as “unbind him and let him walk.”

Lazarus was alive,but he was still clothed in death. Grave cloths bound his hands and feet
and a shroud covered his face.

Even after a person or community has been released from death, there are still ties that bind (Veronice Miles, Feasting on the Word Year A, Lent 5).

Jesus himself still bears the marks of crucifixion in his hands, feet and side after the resurrection.

It requires the careful work of a nurturing community to unshackle the cloths left by oppression, abuse, addiction and grief.

It takes support and love to peel off the shroud of the grave so that all may walk free and unhindered.

Death, suffering and loss have touched each of our lives in some way.

We must not be silent about the things that have died in our lives
and the things we have lost.

We unbind one another by talking and sharing.

The shrouds come off when we listen and understand the suffering of our brothers and sisters, the rivers they have traveled.

As Christians we know Jesus is the resurrection and the life

When Jesus asks Martha if she believes, Martha responds with a faith not in his words or his logic, but in the person of Jesus himself.

She believes in the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world

and so do we.


Lord, if you had been here.


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3 Responses to "A Sermon on John 11.1-45 “Lord, if you had been here”: Genevieve, Paris, and Attila the Hun"
  1. Dinah Saunders says:

    Thank you. What wonderful picytres of beautiful G

  2. Alison Daniels says:

    I wish I had been there. I know Genevieve and she is quite remarkable. Thanks for sharing the inspiring words.

  3. This kind of sermon is worth going to church for.

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