Deacon Sheila M. Scott
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Were you there when they pierced him in the side?
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
I am pretty sure, you are familiar with this soul stirring Afro-American spiritual. You will hear it later on in this service.
Twelve years ago, on Good Friday, I was asked by my then rector, Fr. Mann, to carry a large wooden cross into St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Amarillo, TX, while the choir was singing this hymn. It was a life changing experience for me, and each time I hear it, I am transported back to that powerful moment in my life when it finally occurred to me: I am also responsible for what happened to Jesus more than 2000 years ago! I placed the cross in front of the altar, and with tears streaming down my face, I returned to my seat, a changed person. By the grace of God, that was my “moment closest to Christ.”
The question posed by this spiritual has been asked throughout the ages, and every generation is asked to struggle with its own answers to the question: Were we there when they crucified our Lord?
We just heard John’s Passion, and we know the original players in the Good Friday drama. One of the first people I think of is Judas, Jesus’s own disciple. Judas was there. Judas betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. It is hard to believe that such a close friend could betray his friend, Jesus. But he was not the first, and won’t be the last to do so.
Greed is a powerful motivator. It has been speculated by some bible scholars that Judas wanted to force Jesus’s hand to speed up the coming of the kingdom, where of course he, Judas, would be part of the inner circle, a kingdom in which he would have a high office. This kind of excessive ambition has happened before, and will happen again.
Let me tell you a story about ambition and the betrayal of friendship.
My father was a talented sculptor, whose dream to finish his fine art studies in Rome was thwarted by WWII. Over time he became the head of the design department at a new ceramics factory in a town 250 miles away from our hometown. My family moved there when I was three years old. My father was successful in his career, he loved his work at the ceramics factory where he felt he could put his artistic talents to use.
He had an assistant, a young man I will call George who had just graduated college, whom my father took under his wings and helped develop professionally. My father considered him to be like a younger brother. My father was a very trusting man, an artist to the core, with a heart of gold, who would be willing to give the shirt off his back to help someone else.
George spent many evenings and w/e at our house, ate at our table, and visited with my family. But then, one day he turned my father in to the Securitate, the Romanian equivalent of the KGB. He was promised rapid advancement if he helped bring my father down, because the Romanian government did not like having a Hungarian in a position of leadership, especially not a Hungarian who did not want to be part of the Communist party.
George falsely accused my father of being involved with a group of western sympathizers, who were considered the enemy of the communist state. He was promptly removed from his position. He went through some very difficult times; interrogations and threats against our family. I don’t know the full story because he never really wanted to talk about those dark days. All I remember is that my father’s hair turned gray, and looked as though he aged 20 years overnight. He was eventually cleared, but his career was over and he remained on the communist party’s black list for the rest of his life.
George, on the other hand, became the head of the design department, later the director of the factory, and a puppet of the Communist regime. He managed to ruin several other people’s lives and careers along the way while enjoying all the advantages of being a communist party insider.
George, I know was there when they crucified my Lord, right alongside Judas.
Peter was also there. Peter denied even knowing Jesus three times. Where was Peter when Jesus was being crucified? Nobody knew. Peter was not in sight, he was in hiding, but Peter was there as surely as Judas and George were there.
Peter was weak, as sometimes you and I are weak. It is not that we seek to do wrong, it is just that when difficult situations arise, we are simply too weak to stand up for what is right. We don’t like to admit that, but we are. Peter, the Rock, was weak. And he was there when they crucified my Lord…
Pilate, who despite knowing deep down in his heart that Jesus was who he said he was, washed his hands of the chance of doing the right thing, and sent him to be executed.
Pilate was there when they crucified my Lord!
And there were many others who were there, including the mob–US–that cried: Crucify him! Crucify him!
I was there when they crucified my Lord!
How many times did I chose to stay quiet, when I should have spoken up for what is right? I remember times when I knew very clearly what was happening was not right and just, but I was terrified to say something, for fear of consequences. I knew I made many mistakes in my life, but it did not become clear to me until that Good Friday 12 years ago, that every time I chose to be silent, to take the easy way out, to ignore the injustices around me, I was crucifying Jesus, nailing him to the cross, piercing his side.
I was there when they crucified my Lord!
The spiritual asks: were you there? Yes. We were all there.
Anyone who has ever given into the crowd, anyone who has ever kept silent in the face of bigotry and persecution, anyone who has ever been weak when they knew they should have been strong in the face of evil… We were all there!
In the end, the question is not whether we were there. The question is …whether we stayed.