Walking through life can be a little like walking on a beach. You stroll along, looking, listening, feeling, smelling and every now and again something catches your eye and you turn aside, reach down, pick it up, turn it over, examine it, and decide to hold on to it, to carry it with you.
One of the things I have picked up, hold onto, and carry with me is a single sentence attributed to Frederick Buechner: theologian/writer … a single, sharp, painfully true sentence: “In every small town there is enough grief to freeze your blood.”
A commuter train crashes in New Jersey. A young mother perishes. 104 injured. And there is grief in 105 small towns to freeze your blood. Over 100 children killed in Aleppo just this week … collateral damage as adults wage war. There is enough grief in Aleppo to freeze your blood. A 14-year old shoots and kills a 6-year old at an elementary school and there is enough grief to freeze your blood in Townville, SC. There is enough grief to freeze your blood when a teenager is shot in Roxbury; or when a bank, a large bank, suddenly fires 5,300 employees; or when an uncle beats his 3-year old nephew. And those are just the large, public griefs … the one’s we read about.
There are also the silent, private griefs: the wife beaten by her husband; the adolescent who can’t stop eating and eating and eating; the son and father addicted to opioids; the one whose life savings evaporates in the blink of an eye; the family whose home is foreclosed; the one who suddenly finds himself in a hospital gown, stripped of identity and authority, shivering, afraid and for the first time since becoming an adult, no longer in control of his own life.
In every small town there is enough grief to freeze your blood.
In my walk through this life there is something else I picked up along the way. It is equally as true as the sentence about grief freezing our blood. It is a phrase from a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush alive with God.”
Earth’s crammed with heaven. I carry this with me along with the sentence about grief, because without that reminder – I am overwhelmed by the grief and the icy cold. I carry it with me because, no matter how much grief there is, it is equally true, also true, always, that earth’s crammed with heaven.
This sanctuary is crammed with heaven. Helen McCrady who just read scripture is crammed with heaven. The members of the choir, every one of them is crammed with heaven. The person sitting next to you this morning is crammed with heaven. You, out there, you who walked into this place for the first time in your life, you are crammed with heaven. Those of you who have been around for a while, you are crammed with heaven. Those of you having a good day, those of you having a bad day … those of you who are young parents, and also those of you who are struggling, failing, afraid, sick, ill at ease, laid off … you are crammed with heaven.
To claim that earth is crammed with heaven—despite, sometimes, evidence to the contrary—is a profoundly important theological claim. It asserts that God’s grace permeates and infuses everything, everyone, at all times and in all places … even at times of blood-freezing grief. Heaven is inescapable.
Listen again to the story from Luke’s gospel. Listen to it, if you will, with those two lenses, those two sentences (the one about grief freezing one’s blood and the one about earth being crammed with heaven) and see if you can hear and see both—the grief and the heaven—in this one story.
Jesus went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” (Luke 4: 16-22a)
As Jesus invokes the poor—with their empty eyes and their children with large bellies and skinny limbs—can you feel the chill in the small town synagogue? As he invokes the captives—those behind bars, languishing in jails, prisons and refugee camps—can you fill the icy air? As he invokes the oppressed—the beaten and humiliated the crushed and coursing masses—can you feel the chill? They are all jammed into that synagogue and with them their families and a multiplication of blood-freezing griefs.
But at the same time the synagogue is crammed with heaven … crammed with worshippers who have a heart for God. Crammed and alive with the beautiful, powerful, defiant words of Isaiah, words of heaven: Amnesty for we guilty ones. Freedom for we bound ones. Security for we anxious and afraid ones. A kaleidoscope of colors for we blind ones. And good news for we poor ones whose days are an endless drip, drip, drip of bad news.
And, of course, that synagogue was crammed with Jesus … who is, for Christians, among the most beautiful ways that God has crammed earth with heaven.
So, I have picked up along the way these two true things, these sentences, these lenses: the one that is sharp and painful and cold … and everywhere apparent. It is everywhere apparent because we are in the habit of taking the temperature of the world—or the media is taking it for us—and we know how cold it is: bone-chilling, blood-freezing, train-crashing, child-killing cold.
But I have also picked up and carry with me this other true thing: a truth that bespeaks a grace and comfort that are warm and lovely beyond words … and equally true.
For Christians claim that wherever Jesus walks this earth, the ice thaws, hearts melt, doors open, healing happens, the blind see, the hungry eat, and things formerly hard and cold as ice are warmed by grace. And we see what is true but hard to remember: earth’s crammed with heaven.
Some of you remember when Apollo 8 broke through the gravitational field of this planet and entered the gravitational field of the moon. It was 1968. We watched and waited … anxious for the pictures that would be relayed back to us … anxious to peer into space. But what so startled and amazed us—what we had no way of anticipating or preparing for—were the photos of ourselves: the glance backwards across thousands of miles of dark, cold space … the view of ourselves on this achingly lovely, blue and green, slowly turning earth.
Before that moment, we had no idea how beautiful we are. For the first time we saw ourselves as God sees us: staggeringly, astonishingly beautiful.
We traveled out there to peer into the heavens. It was there that we saw with our own eyes that earth—this earth, our lives, you, me, this lovely planet—we are crammed with heaven.
The sentence attributed to Frederick Buechner is painfully true. It cannot be denied: “In every small town there is enough grief to freeze your blood.”
But so is this … so are the worlds of the poet: “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush alive with God.”
Maybe you have been reading about, learning about the White Helmets. Syria’s civilian volunteers. After each airstrike they don white helmets and with nothing more than their bare hands and uncommon courage, they charge in amongst the ruble, into the devastation to dig out bodies or rescue citizens.
This week—the image is seared into my mind’s eye—a young, strong, brave White Helmet dug an infant from the ruble … dug her out, clawing at the ruble with his bare hands.
He, who had been digging with his bare hands, who had recovered one dead body after another … pulls an infant from the ruble. Ever so gently he brushes ruble from her tiny face, from her tiny eyes and nose and mouth and ears. And she is alive, impossibly alive. And he holds her to his chest, and he weeps. He cannot stop weeping: is shoulders heaving, his body trembling, he weeps.
Even where it is hellish, even there: earth’s crammed with heaven.
Note: I am beholden in this sermon to my friend, the Rt. Rev. Brian Baker, for the juxtaposition and complimentarily of the Browning and Buechner quotations from his March 19, 2000 sermon preached in St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Ketchum, Idaho.