Rev. Danielle K Bartz March 26, 2022
Ezekiel 37:1-14 “Seeking: Can These Bones Live”
Immediately following the Civil War, freed Blacks in the New Orleans area formed Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs. These organizations provided two purposes: one was social cohesion and community building. They were forums for the newly freed Black people to come together for fellowship and fun. The other purpose was equally important: they provided financial insurance for the members of the clubs. Members, paying dues usually on a sliding scale, were able to get insurance for health care through these clubs, which was vital because the established insurance organizations would not support Black people. These clubs also provided financial end of life support and funeral assistance. And that is where the two primary purposes of the clubs combined – they provided the financial support necessary for families to properly bury their loved ones, and they provided the community support to help those families grieve.
Building on traditions from west Africa, where many of the freed Blacks had their roots, burials were followed by music that was meant to celebrate the life that the deceased person lived and to rejoice that they had now entered into eternal life with their Creator. The caskets were carried from the place of the funeral with musicians leading the way to the cemetery playing mournful music. These processions were for the immediate family and leaders of the clubs only. Following the burial, the music would change. The musicians, often playing brass instruments and drums, would start to play upbeat music that encouraged dancing. The procession would start out from the cemetery, led by lively music, and those following would be dancing in celebration for the life of the one they had buried.
Immediately following the musicians would be the family and club leaders. They were called the first line. Then, as they paraded through the streets of the community, everyone else was welcome to join in the celebration and dancing. These community members, who would join as the parade went by, were called the second line. Soon, the entire community would be parading through the streets, dancing to lively music. The family’s grief would begin to turn to rejoicing in the promise of eternal life, and the community would be there as well – dancing their support and love for the family. Dancing hope for new life in the spaces of death into reality.
The entire movement is called Second Lining now. Today it has evolved to be a community parade for any, or no, reason. Hardly a day goes by in New Orleans that does not include a Second Lining parade that welcomes everyone to join in. The Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs still exist, but they now focus their efforts on community building, celebrating traditions, and helping grieving families. Jazz funerals, as they are more commonly called today, still happen often in New Orleans. It is a part of the culture, traced back to the ancestral roots of former slaves in the South, that were meant to help people in deep valleys find hope and joy in the midst of grief.
I can think of no better example for the audacity of Christian hope than Second Lining. Of what it means to be Easter people in a Good Friday world. To be people who hold onto and proclaim hope of new life in the places that feel like death. To be Easter people in today’s world can sometimes feel utterly ridiculous, but it is who we are. It is what we are promised. It is what we hold onto. And it is what we must proclaim to all the world. To say yes when we are asked, “Can these bones live?”
The valley of dry bones, a vision cast by the prophet Ezekiel during a time of exile for the people of Israel, is not just a beautiful and hopeful vision for a people who were wondering whether their community would ever live and thrive again. It is also a reminder that hope must be proclaimed. It must be spoken to those who are in need of it, even if, especially if, their need feels too great to meet. Over and over again in this vision, God tells Ezekiel to prophesy. To prophesy to the dry bones. To prophesy to the spirit. God tells Ezekiel that he is to speak aloud the promise of life, and that by doing so the glory of God will be known. It is clear to me that if Ezekiel did not proclaim God’s world of life into that valley, then death would have remained. God needed a partner, someone to share the Good News. And Ezekiel responded to that call and spoke words of hope, even if it seemed like the possibility of life was beyond any hope that was available. Ezekiel did it anyway, and the valley of people came alive once again.
I talk often about what it means to be Easter people in a Good Friday world. I talk often about the hope in the Kingdom of God that we must hold onto. But to be Easter people is not to just hold onto hope, it is to proclaim it. To point to God, to point to the empty tomb, to point to the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. To be an Easter people in a Good Friday world is to embrace the tiniest slivers of life and life abundant that are everywhere, to share them with others, and ask everyone around us to join in the celebration. This is our calling but, believe me, I know how difficult it can be. We are inundated with death and deep valleys where it seems like life cannot exist. Our changing climate, our pervasive gun culture, our deeply embedded systems of injustice, the growing sense of apathy and indifference – all of that can overwhelm at times and to find life in it can feel impossible. But that is why we gather here. That is why church exists. We are a community that can rely on the promise and presence of God and one another to draw on hope and strength. When one of us feels depleted, we can draw on the hope of someone else. When one of us is unable to find joy, we can borrow some from our neighbor. When one of us is feeling alone, we can find a friend here.
It is said that Lent lasts forty days, not including the Sundays, because in church it is always Easter on Sunday. Which is absolutely true. Every Sunday we gather to remember the empty tomb. To celebrate God fulfilling God’s promise of life in the midst of death. We gather for worship and praise and community, to draw strength to once again hold onto and proclaim hope to a world that too often feels like it is trapped in a perpetual season of Lent. That is why we worship and that is why the church remains so important today.
The freed Black people in southern Louisiana lived in a Good Friday world. They were no longer slaves but the world around them had no desire for them to live freely. Drawing on a source of hope that could only come from God, they formed a community that did all it could to make real the Kingdom of God around them. They supported one another, they grieved with one another, they celebrated together, and they created a current of Easter celebration that everyone could tap into. When they buried their dead, yes they grieved deeply. But they also rejoiced in the life that had been lived, the promise of eternal life, and the life that was new everyday in the world around them. In the cemeteries the music would turn joyful, and leading out from that place a parade was formed filled with dancing and joy. The hopeful music was loud enough that everyone could hear and could not but help to join in. That is what it looks like to proclaim Easter hope into a Good Friday world. And while we might not choose to lead parades through the streets, believe me, if we proclaim and live hope loud enough, people will hear. They will hear and won’t be able to resist joining into the Second Line. Because everyone is invited into that line, no matter who they are, or where they are on their life’s journey. Hope lives here, and hope moves out from this space into a world that is in desperate need.
So let us celebrate that tradition and let us celebrate the promise of life in spaces that feel like death. Building on the remarkable example of Second Lining, I invite you to rise in body and in spirit, and join together in singing…(When the Saints Go Marching In)…
Easter God, we are in the midst of Lent, both in the calendar of the church and in the way much of the world feels around us. But you have created us to join with you in planting seeds of new life and proclaiming hope to all we encounter. For this remarkable calling, we give you great thanks and it is in that gratitude that we come before you now in prayer.
God, we are fully aware that much of the world feels like it is beyond any words of hope now. For our neighbors stuck in cycles of injustice, for the places in the world where war reigns, for those who are sick and hurting, for ourselves when we feel overwhelmed by it all – we turn to you in prayer because with you we find a source of comfort that passes all understanding. Help us to always seek you out and to share your promise with all we encounter.
We have gathered as a community to draw strength once again from one another and from you. In these moments of silence, we open our spirits to you, turning over to you our cares and allowing ourselves to be filled up once again…
Good and Great God, you are the source of such hope and strength. And you have shown us what it means to live your Kingdom into reality in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. So, we pray all of this and so much more in his name. And now we pray in the he taught…Our Father…