Am I my brother's keeper?
A Sermon for the African Heritage Month Proclamation
February 1, 2023 at the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre
It’s an honour to be here with you. Thank you to Andrea and the board for your invitation. I hope that I will honour the legacy of the generations of preachers who have used the pulpit at St Paul’s to build up this community.
A reading from the First Letter of St John:
For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother's righteous. Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. (1 John 3:11–16).
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
What a gut-punch it was, just as we plans were ramping up for another Black Heritage Month, to hear about another Black man killed, beaten to death by police in Memphis, while he called out for his mother. That murder had me thinking: Who was responsible for the life of Tyre Nichols? One answer to that question is obvious: the officers who killed him. Definitely. But pay attention to the question. I didn’t ask, “Who was responsible for his death,” but “Who was responsible for his life?”
Young men in their prime don’t just die—not unless people who are supposed to be looking out for them aren’t doing their job. Without people looking out for us, how far would we get in life? And if we flourish, it’s because people have taken responsibility for our lives. They take it on themselves to make sure we’re doing okay, standing on our feet. The sad truth about the killing of Tyre Nichols is that those officers could never have become responsible for his death, if they had chosen to be responsible for his life.
But that’s true of every murder. The Bible tells us the story of the first murder: Cain is jealous of his brother, so he kills him (Genesis 4:1–16). God gives Cain a chance to own up to it. “Where is Abel your brother?” he asks. But Cain answers, “I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?” Of course, God knows what Cain has done—“the voice of your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground,” he says—but how did Cain try to dodge responsibility? “Am I my brother’s keeper?” he says. “It’s not my job to keep track of my brother. His life is his own business.”
But is it?
What Cain says isn’t just a convenient way of escaping the question. He says exactly what he means. He take no responsibility for the life of his brother. And that was true before God ever asked what happened to Abel. How do we know that? Because it impossible to murder your brother if you understand that his life is precious, and that it’s your responsibility to keep it safe.
The Bible reading with which I opened this talk is from the New Testament. Saint John looks back at the story of Cain and Abel and says, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer.” Cain didn’t kill Abel when he grabbed him in his hands. Cain killed his brother when he stopped caring about whether he lived or died.
But Saint John, talking about the church, says, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers.” Saint John’s First Letter is all about how we know whether our relationship with God is genuine. Here he says that we show that it is genuine when we do the opposite of what Cain did: when we take responsibility for the life of our brothers. We claim it: I am my brother’s keeper.
And how do I show that I am my brother’s keeper? Saint John goes on: “We ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.”
What are Black Heritage celebrations about? Well they’re about a lot of things, and lots of things I still have to learn, but I know that they are at least about this: they’re about being reminded that we need to lay down our lives for our brothers. Part of that is about telling the story of all the ways that we have failed to lay down our lives for our brothers. So there’s a somber aspect, an aspect of grieving and remembering and owning up to the past. But there’s also a hopeful aspect. We look to the future, and commit to being our brother’s keeper.
Because it is hopeful. It’s not just a duty; it’s a joy. What does St John say? “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers.” You want to know that you have real life? You want to know that death isn’t the final reality? Then lay down your life for your brother. Make somebody your brother by laying down your life for him. That’s where joy is. That’s where peace is. That’s love; that’s where God is.
So let’s try it. I’ve been asked to invite you all to a moment of remembrance. Remembrance is a way of being our brother’s keeper: we hold on to the precious lives of those who have gone before us.
There’s a tombstone in behind Christ Church in Shelburne, which says, “A memorial commemorating the Black Loyalists buried in this cemetery from 1798.” Whoever set up that stone was taking responsibility for being his brother’s keeper, for valuing the life of his brother enough to remember him, and to make sure that other people would too. The only shame is that the names of those Black Loyalists couldn’t be listed, because somewhere along the line someone wasn’t acting as his brother’s keeper, and didn’t think it was important to write down their names. Memory goes both ways: we remember failures and successes.
So I invite you to a quiet moment of remembrance and contemplation. Call to mind the ancestors: the Black ancestors who suffered, the Black ancestors who died, and the Black ancestors who pushed through. Call to mind the white ancestors: those who struggled, those who prospered, those who hated their brothers, and those who loved them. And call to mind those people now living for whom you are accountable. In memory and in life, whose keeper are you?
[Long moment of silence.]
Amen. Let me give you a blessing. “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace; in the Name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.“