Legacy of Bone and Breath

Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, April 2, 2017

Ezekiel 37:1-14
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.I still remember being stunned when we came across human arm and leg bones and skulls strewn across a hill in Peru, which was being excavated for housing. Bulldozers were ploughing through ancient burial grounds and human remains joined boulders and dirt in the piles of debris. I was trying very hard not to bring my own cultural beliefs and judgements into a foreign land, but this was particularly difficult to reconcile.

 This area near the coast in Peru never has rain. There is only rock and dust; nothing lives there—no plants, insects or birds. There are only bleached, human skeletons. Why are there so many human remains in such an inhospitable environment? Archaeologists believe that this was the place the Huari people went to die over 1,000 years ago.

While they were awaiting death, they carved over 5,000 pictures into the large boulders—the largest collection of petroglyphs in the world. They wanted to leave accounts of their lives on earth before they were transported to a new life.

This is the closest I’ve come to experiencing Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of the dry bones. It was both sobering and stunning. It made me realize not the impermanence of life, as Buddhism teaches, but the permanence of our footprint. It will be a LONG time before those skeletons are reduced to dust and even longer before the petroglyphs disappear. Even 1,000 years later, scientists can test the bones and learn much about the age, sex, general health, diet, diseases, injuries, lifestyles, work and living conditions of each skeleton.

Professor Katherine Amos wonders what an analysis of our spiritual bones might indicate. Would it show a deficiency of a diet of prayer and spiritual reflection? Would it demonstrate how well we practice the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control?[1] How would we answer God if we were asked, “Can these bones live?” Our best answer might be to join our voice with Ezekiel’s and respond, “O Lord God, you know.” What is more sobering is the possibility that our spiritual health and actions will be known and felt long after our physical bodies have been reduced to dust.

Physics teaches us that energy does not disappear. It simply changes from one form to another. That tells me that our life force or spirit does not die when our bodies die, but changes to another form of life. This is one explanation of eternal life, small as it might be. What we each do matters not only in our own lives, but also in the world. We each contribute to the healing and destruction of our world.

When I’m floating on a glass-still lake and gently touch my paddle to the surface, I watch the ripples go on and on until I can’t see them anymore, but I know they will still continue until the far shore of the lake. Scientists call this the Ripple Effect. The smallest of disturbances will travel great distances.

There is another scientific theory that is even more impressive and more debated. It is called the Butterfly Effect. It argues that small causes, such as the flap of a butterfly’s wings, can have large effects, such as a tornado. If the conditions are just right, one tiny action can tip the scales into a perfect storm.

Phyllis Chelsea sat at her kitchen table with a bottle of wine, worrying about her children and her own drinking problem. Alcoholism was tearing her Alkali Lake First Nation apart. Children were going to school hungry—there was alcohol, but no food in their houses. She had had enough. And so, she decided to stop drinking. She talked to her husband and they started an AA group for two. Word and hope spread together, the AA group grew and today 95% of the band abstains from alcohol. One woman’s decision transformed the reserve.

Last week a number of us stayed for a fascinating Talk Back following the service. Gordon suggested that we are on the cusp of another Copernican Revolution. Copernicus, you might remember, dared to challenge the belief that the sun revolves around the earth. His theory cost him his life, but it changed the world forever. This second Copernican Revolution is based on quantum physics, which explores the fluidity of both time and space. Gordon described multiple experiments that have proven that thought alone can change the physical state of objects.

These scientific theories work in harmony with our theology. First, we have to realize that the energy we send out to our families does have an effect. We don’t live in insular bubbles. I’ve talked with family members of someone hospitalized about the importance of keeping positive energy in the room. Worry and negativity can delay the patient’s recovery. Prayer and support, on the other hand, can speed the healing. When I see someone distraught—even if it’s a stranger—I try to remember to pray for them right then, because I really do believe that the healing energy I can send through the power of the Holy Spirit will touch them.

Secondly, I believe, along with others at our discussion group last Sunday, that if we collectively focus on one concern and pray together, we will be sending out powerful healing energy that the Spirit will amplify.

Finally, our spiritual bones will have a lasting impact. Ezekiel’s vision of the Spirit breathing life into the dry bones was intended to give the Hebrew people hope, even though they felt that their bones had dried up and that they were completely cut off from their land and their God. Ezekiel was promising that God would give them and their descendants a long, lasting legacy. We, too, will have a legacy of bone and breath. It is our choice as to the type of legacy we leave behind.

[1] Katherine Amos, “Pastoral Perspective of Ezekiel 37:1-14,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 2, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, p. 126.