21 February 2016

‘Look towards heaven and count the stars,
if you are able to count them’

Night falls on the harbour in Skerries, Co Dublin … how many stars can you see on a clear night? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford,

Saint Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe, Co Clare,

Sunday 21 February 2016,

The Second Sunday in Lent,

11.30 a.m., The Cathedral Eucharist.

Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3: 17 to 4: 1; Luke 13: 31-35.

In the name of the + Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

What do you buy as a present for someone who has everything, say for Christmas, for Saint Valentine’s Day last Sunday, or for that special birthday?

You want to get beyond the chocolates, the socks, the bunch of roses from the filling station, the funny tie or a book token.

The curious and delightful packages available on the internet include a questionable but probably legal title of Baron or Baroness that goes with a tiny plot of land in the Scottish Highlands; or adopting a pair of penguins on the Antarctic or endangered lions in the Serengeti.

Or you might even have a star in a far-off galaxy named after someone you truly love … all for little more than the chocolates and the roses or a bottle of bubbly.

But did you ever look up on a clear, moonless night and ask how many stars I can see above?

When you look up into the night sky it stretches a pitch-black canvas washed with streaks and studs of brightness. We are surrounded by light that has travelled the expanse of the universe to reach our eyes. And it makes me feel tiny and enormous at one and the same time.

But how many stars do I actually see?

There is really no definitive answer to this question. No one has counted all the stars in the night sky, and astronomers use different numbers as theoretical estimates.

Considering all the stars visible in all directions around Earth, some estimates say there are between 5,000 and 10,000 visible stars. But that’s just the stars visible to the naked eye tonight.

But why limit it to my own failing short-sighted pair of eyes. Why should I simply marvel at the majesty and mystery of it all when I can do some calculations and think of how many stars are visible to God?

Let me start with the galaxies. Astronomers estimate there are around 170 billion galaxies in the observable universe, stretching out over a radius of some 45.7 billion light years.

Those galaxies vary in terms of the number of stars they contain. Some galaxies have more than a trillion stars. Some giant elliptical galaxies have 100 trillion stars. There are also tiny dwarf galaxies – tiny, of course, is a relative term here – some tiny dwarf galaxies that have significantly fewer stars.

On the other hand, the Milky Way, our little corner of the observable universe, has 400 billion stars alone.

So, if we multiply the estimated average number of stars in each galaxy by the number of galaxies in the observable universe – and carry the billion, &c – I get a rough estimate of all the stars I am capable of observing. And what I find is there is roughly a septillion stars in the observable universe. That brings us to 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars (1024, or 1 followed by 24 zeros). Which is, well, put simply, an awesome lot of stars.

In this morning’s Old Testament reading, Abraham is worried about his survival, his future, and what is going to happen after he dies.

He has no children and he tries the old trusted ways of augury and divination … it seems strange or weird to us today, but this sort of thing was practised throughout the ancient civilisations in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, even in classical Greece and Rome.

Of course, Abraham’s fears are the fears of many in the Middle East today: who is going to inherit this land? Are those I see as out-siders threats, real or imagined, not only to my survival but threats to everything I hope for in the future?

My dreams are so precious to me that they are important.

I understand Abraham’s fears, at two levels:

1, I was a little older than some members of my peer group – family, friends and work colleagues – when I became a parent. I was in my late 30s. There are so many thoughts that those years of waiting can bring to mind that we could have a full counselling session here afterwards. They go as far as the meaning and purpose of life. But how do we treat childless couples, single parents, separated children, and others in Church? And are those fears and their insecurities reinforced when we organise ‘family services’ or talk about ‘family values.’

2, I have travelled throughout the Middle East at different times, as a journalist, on inter-faith projects, and so on. I know what doom Abraham imagines when he contemplates Eliezer of Damascus coming into everything he has worked for, and all he has made sacrifices for. But I also grasp the fear that strikes the descendants of Eliezer of Damascus when they hear that Abraham’s children are going to stake a claim to all the land “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates,” from Egypt across to the borders of Iraq and Iran, from Cairo to Baghdad.

But Abram, who is later to become Abraham, is told not to fear. God says to him, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’

Today, the three great faiths that claim descent from Abraham, either genealogically or spiritually, are the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims, as well as many other smaller monotheistic faiths, such as the Samaritans, the Mandaeans, the Yezidis and the Druze.

You may not count some of those in. But once we start counting people out because of our limited vision, we forget the vast scope of God’s vision. God’s response to Abraham includes a hint that he cannot possibly count the stars by looking at them. A septillion stars may be there for me to see, but they are beyond my ability to count, beyond my imagination, beyond my comprehension.

Yet, God’s love knows no limits, knows no boundaries.

Each morning during Lent, I am reflecting on words from Samuel Johnson, who compiled the first English-language dictionary and who is often regarded as one of the great Anglican saints of the 18th century. This morning, I was reflecting on one of his great friends, the Bishop of Killaloe, Thomas Barnard.

Thinking about the stars at night, the great tragedies in the world and the unbounded love of God, Dr Johnson once wrote:

“The pensive man at one time walks ‘unseen’ to muse at midnight, and at another hears the sullen curfew. If the weather drives him home he sits in a room lighted only by ‘glowing embers’; or by a lonely lamp outwatches the North Star to discover the habitation of separate souls, and varies the shades of meditation by contemplating the magnificent or pathetick scenes of tragick and epick poetry.”

Sometimes, I find as I stand presiding at or celebrating the Holy Communion or the Eucharist that I am taken aback by intense feelings of the love of God.

This happened to me last Sunday [14 February 2016] in the chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. There I use the ‘Prayer of Humble Access’ at the fraction, when we are breaking the Bread of Communion at the invitation.

It is a prayer that has gone out of fashion in many parishes, but it is a reminder that we come to the Table or the Altar not because of our own goodness, not in spite of our own sinfulness, but because of the overflowing mercy and grace that God gives us freely and with unlimited bounty:

We do not presume to come to this your table,
merciful Lord,
trusting in our own righteousness
but in your manifold and great mercies.
We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table.
But you art the same Lord,
whose nature is always to have mercy.
Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord,
so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ,
and to drink his blood,
that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body,
and our souls washed through his most precious blood,
and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

I was taken aback and was conscious of the love of God unexpectedly as I came to those words: “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table.”

What flashed across my mind was a video clip that has gone viral on YouTube and social media, of two small, frail abandoned children caught up in Syria’s bloody civil war, fending for themselves by picking up crumbs of bread from the street to eat.

These two homeless mites, who are braver than any groups fighting or waging war in Syria, tell the camera crew: “We go to sleep hungry, we wake up hungry.”

They have been separated from their parents. I have close links with the Anglican mission agency, USPG, which is working with the plight of Syrian refugees in Lesvos and Athens and other parts of Greece. The work of USPG in the midst of this tragedy and catastrophe is a living witness to words like those of the Psalmist this morning: “Though my father and my mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up” (Psalm 27: 13).

The 10-year-old girl says she has been collecting bread crumbs off the street with her brother because their area of Damascus, al-Hajar, has been under siege for more than 15 months.

“If we had food, you wouldn’t have seen us here.”

But their final message to the world that has abandoned them is: “May you be happy and blessed with what God has given you!”

Europe takes pity on children like this when we see them on YouTube or on the 9 o’clock news. But when they land on our shores in the Aegean Islands in Greece, or make their way up through central Europe, we deem them not worthy to gather up the crumbs under our table.

They arrive here, perhaps hoping like the Psalmist this morning believing that they “shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Psalm 27: 16). But God is the “same Lord, whose nature is always to have mercy.”

I have looked at this video clip again and again since then. And I think of the image of Christ in our Gospel reading this morning:

“How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Luke 13: 34)

The children of the world are the future of the world. It does not matter whose children they are. It does not matter how many of them there are: whether they are two children searching for crumbs that I am not worthy to gather up, or small enough to be gathered in by a loving parent, or are countless in numbers like the stars, they are all embraced in the love of the loving and living God. They are all heirs to God’s promises.

And how we respond to them, how I respond to them, shows them what I think, what we think, of God and how much we believe in his promise.

And so may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.


Almighty God, you show to those who are in error the light of your truth
that they may return to the way of righteousness:
Grant to all those who are admitted
into the fellowship of Christ’s religion,
that they may reject those things
that are contrary to their profession,
and follow all such things
as are agreeable to the same;
through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Luke 13: 31-35

31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ 32 He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” 34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”.’

Post Communion Prayer:

Creator of heaven and earth,
we thank you for these holy mysteries
given us by our Lord Jesus Christ,
by which we receive your grace
and are assured of your love,
which is through him now and for ever.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford lectures in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Cathedral Eucharist in Saint Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe, Co Clare, on Sunday 21 February 2016.

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