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The year is 1940. Hitler has begun his quest towards trying to conquer Europe and systematically eliminate the Jews. Stalin is squarely poised to spread his brand of communism throughout Western Europe and Asia. Apartheid is God in South Africa. Ghana is suffering from resource extraction. Jamaica is crushed under Britain's heel, and John Wesley Work III is arranging the world renowned Negro Spiritual, "Lord I'm Out Here On Your Word."
We can never separate one's words from their social location in the realm of human history, and in 1940 Professor Work found himself confronting a country at the brink of going to war. But, more importantly, as a professor at Fisk University, he found himself trying to educate young Black persons on how to survive in a racist country. Yes, Work understood that an educated Negro had a social advantage over an uneducated one, but he intimately understood that one's education means nothing when your very life is at stake.
I can hear Professor Work asking, "What do I do as a brother in the struggle to try and encourage a population such as this?" I give them words; I give them a canon. I can hear his lyrical words ringing out:
"Lord I'm Out Here On Your Word
Lord I'm Out Here On Your Word
If I die on the battlefield
Lord I'm Out Here On Your Word"
Despite the immense social challenges that African-Americans faced in 1940, Work does not give his students words of cowardliness. He does not give them words of retreat. He does not give them words of compromise, but he gives them words of conviction and power. And when I think about these words, I think the words of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.
The problem becomes what words of the Lord Christ should ring through our minds when we think about our passage and the work of Professor John Wesley Work III. In an age where proof texting and YouTube sound bites reign as a dominant narrative in our growing culture of Biblical illiteracy, it becomes a perplexing task to ascertain what word or words of the Lord will govern our lives. If we are honest with ourselves, although we acknowledge the existence of a Biblical canon, we know that in our personal lives we have canon within the canon. Yes, we will take the Bible with its abstract language, its poetic idioms, and its ever speaking parables; but for our personal lives we hold a much smaller, a much intimate portion of scripture near and dear to us. Our canons within the larger canon are comprised of texts that we hope will bring us comfort, strength, and encouragement for our Christian journey.
Yes, our canons within the larger canon convey the dynamics of our relationship with God and humanity, but I wonder what canon did Stephen have going through his mind as he prepared to die for the uncompromising and un-sanitized testimony of Jesus the Christ.
The believers in the Book of Acts don't have time to hold fast to a canon that does equip them to confront the immense social ills in their communities. However, as the faith movement begins to grow, Rome realizes that they have to increase their terror and social control over the people because these people are poised to now proclaim that Rome does not have the final say. They are poised to proclaim a counter narrative that while the world may bow to Caesar and empire that Jesus the Christ is also the Risen Lamb of God. He is also the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.
Therefore, as Rome fights tooth and nail to hold on to its system, as it fights to maintain its power, as it fights to keep freedom at bay, I ask the question again, "What canon, what words, do you hold to in times like these?"
Stephen's lot gets worse when the Jewish Council realizes that the resurrection of Jesus the Christ means that their days of living in ecclesiastical absolutism are drawing to a close. This council had spent all of the Messiah's life trying to discredit him. They had employed every rhetorical tactic to try and prove that he was a blasphemer. They had even cooperated with Rome to try to trick that this would-be messiah, this would-be prophet, this common enemy, was silenced forever. Therefore, this time with this prophet, they would not wait for Rome. They were going to issue a resounding call that these rebel Jews turned Christians were not welcome in this region and that their faith would land them just like their would-be messiah.
And it's here that Stephen finds himself, between the oppressive Roman Empire and the equally oppressive Jewish Council. And it's here that I ask the question once more, "What canon, what words, do you hold to in times like these?"
When I look at Stephen's uncompromising stance, I reiterate that I hear the words of Jesus echoing through his mind, body, and soul. We know the words that on the night that he was betrayed he did take bread, bless it, break it and give it to his disciples. Yes, we know that after supper he took the cup, blessed it, and gave it to the twelve as well, but it is the words penned by that Christological Evangelist named John from this Passover feast that ring out in Stephen's mind. I can hear Stephen saying to himself in this his finest hour,
If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world--therefore the world hates you.
The profound and captivating rhetorical address given by Stephen in the first part of Acts 7 would not have been possible if he did not understand the serious spiritual and social implications of his call. Yes, he was not present when the Messiah uttered these words into our existence, but those like Stephen understand that these words, that this canon, shape our very lives when we are dare to live, breathe, and speak a counter-narrative.
Political pundits and religious bigots will hate us when we advocate for a theology that is socially liberating.
Governors and ecclesial councils will say we no longer belong to them when we challenge the systems that keep Black and Brown babies illiterate.
Congressman and clergy will never love us as their own when we declare to them that their "isms," although crafted politically and theologically, have lived their last day.
Yes, the world will hate us when we dare to make a stand. Despite the challenges of our day, we need not despair when this becomes our canon. Despite the challenges of our day, we need not despair when these become our words. Despite the challenges of our day, we need not despair when this becomes our counter narrative to the world, because I can hear the hymnologist saying,
If when you give the best of your service
Telling the world that the Saviour has come
Be not dismayed when men don't believe you
He'll understand and say well done."
Therefore, Lord, "If we die on the battlefield
 John W. Work III, Lord, I'm Out Here On Your Word, Fisk Jubilee Singers, Curb Records, CD, 2003.
 John 15:18-19 (NRSV).
 "He'll Understand And Say "Well Done"" in Rev. Dr. Delores Carpenter and Rev. Nolan E. Williams Jr., eds., African American Heritage Hymnal. (Chicago: Gia Publications, 2001), 413.
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