It’s Easter Tuesday 2023, and for the life of me, I cannot get this one African-American spiritual out of my head… “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” This powerful tune started its work on me last week right around Good Friday (appropriate enough, one would think), and it continued its course with me as I planned an Easter Sunday sunrise service. Yep, two days ago, my son and I hauled ourselves out of bed at 4:30am, and drove to the beach with other early-rising disciples who wanted to greet the dawn on Easter morning. It was a calm and restorative service with the gentle wind and waves lapping on the shore.
Were you there?
Yeah, so even after a calm, restorative Easer Sunday sunrise service on the beach … that hymn just won’t stop in my head; it’s like it’s on continual repeat. I mean, c’mon! It’s Easter Tuesday, already!
Jesus walked to the cross. CHECK!
Jesus was crucified. CHECK!
Jesus was resurrected and the freedom is ours for the taking. CHECK!
We walked through Lent; we told our story; we said the “Alleluia’s!” CHECK! CHECK! and CHECK!
DONE! WE ARE DONE!
Except, I guess … we aren’t done. Or at least, I’m not done because that hymn just won’t stop with me. And, I guess I get it. We aren’t done because our story doesn’t end with the resurrection even though sometimes we act like it does. Yeah, I think the reason that hymn won’t stop its repeat in my head is because the story — our story — is really just starting. You know, that story when close friends and family were … there … when they crucified their friend, son, teacher, Jesus …. that story that seems so distant – so out of reach – so beyond … that even as a pastor, I struggle to comprehend it. Yeah, that story.
It’s just beginning. At this point, I think it’s time that you hear this hymn too.
If you need to watch a powerful verse of it … check out Mahalia Jackson going FOR IT on YouTube.
If you want to hear the whole thing check out Mahalia Jackson’s full rendition.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?Were You There?, An African American spiritual that probably predates the Civil War, “Were You There” was first published in
Oh, were you there when they crucified my Lord?
(Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble) tremble
William Barton’s Old Plantation Hymns
(1899)- from Hymnary.org
So, as I enter into my second week with this hymn running its course through my head and heart, I find that its haunting melody and slow, methodical tempo is accompanying me at every step. It is making me ponder and visualize and ask again and again:
Were you there, Melinda?
Like Mary, were you there? Like Jesus’ loved ones and followers, were you there?
Were you there?
This hymn has been making me ask this question again and again … to the point where on one morning drive to work, I found myself spontaneously singing some new words to this old, old cry from the heart:
Were you there when they ‘xpelled them from the house?
Oh, were you there when they ‘xpelled them from the house?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble) tremble
After as I sang these “new” lyrics, the hymn took a new turn for me. I found myself returning to the verses of John, and considering deeply about what it means to be there; what it means to be a witness.
25 Jesus’ mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene stood near the cross. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.”John 19: 25-36 (CEB)
What does it mean to be a witness to the horrific things that we (yes, we = me + you) do as God’s people?
And I guess, more pointedly, what is God calling us to do with our witness?
In recent weeks, we have all been witness to the expulsion of two young black elected representatives, Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, from the Tennessee state legislature for “violating the decorum of the chamber.” There are lots of news sources to read about the events, if you haven’t been following. Here’s a solid one to check out from the LA Times:
Tennessee’s House expels two of three Democrats involved in gun control protest
As I process this and ensuing events, I can’t help but wonder: what does it mean to witness to this (and countless others) events of racial injustice and misuse of power?
Now, I wasn’t there in Tennessee; I’m not going to be anytime soon. But, nonetheless, I am … we are all witnesses to this and countless other acts of overarching misuses of power. I am, we are witness to racist, harmful acts that work to keep in place the multitude of power imbalances in our institutions and systems.
And as disciples of Christ … who were ALL there when they crucified our Lord … what does it mean for us today to witness?
And by that question, yes, I am really asking: how do we not just standby?
How are we engaging our faith?
How are we lifting our voices (in whispers and over the bullhorn both) to upend the systems that are more focused on a chamber’s decorum than putting an end to gun violence that permeates in and through our communities — particularly our underserved, impoverished and vulnerable, communities at the margins?
Were you there?
From my open heart to yours on this Easter Tuesday,