Shall we gather at the river? – All Saints’ Sunday 2011

The story is told of the rector who invited the local Presbyterian minister as guest preacher. It turned out that the minister was a serious teetotaller who delivered an impassioned address on the evils of the demon drink, much to the discomfort of the rector who enjoyed his glass of port. The preacher went on and on, and eventually brought his denunciation to a climax: “If I had all the bottles of whiskey in the world, I would throw them all into the river!” At which point the rector stood up and said, “We will now sing the hymn, ‘Shall we gather at the river?'”

Ok it’s not much of a joke, but I couldn’t resist it, as we are going to sing that very hymn later on. I wanted to put on something distinctively Protestant this morning, for my in-laws, and I am reliably informed that whenever they show a church service on “The Waltons” or “Little House on the Prairie”, there’s a good chance that this is what they’ll be singing. It is of course very suitable for All Saints’ Day, with its reference to the Revelation: “The angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb“. In simple language it evokes what today’s collect calls “those inexpressible joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you“. The old version of the prayer used the phrase “unspeakable joys”; and while the words and music of Shall we gather might indeed be considered by purists to be “unspeakable”, they are nonetheless full of heavenly joy.

 

It’s also, I think, suitable for a baptism; this image of the water of life pouring out from God’s throne and welling up (as John’s Gospel says) in the hearts of believers; the Holy Spirit sent by the Father to make us into the image of his Son.

Last Monday we were reminded rather drastically of the power of water, as the torrential rain filled up hidden rivers and caused them to rise. Streams long since built over and forgotten suddenly made their presence felt. It’s a good image for God’s unseen, unnoticed presence in his creation; deep at the heart of things, and speaking to each one of us at hidden, unconscious levels. God the Holy Spirit, the still small voice, “that checks each fault, that calms each fear, and speaks of heaven”. Our baptism today taps into that hidden action of God, as we bring Mimi to the “crystal fountain, whence the healing stream doth flow”. In time she will learn to understand something of what this means, and how we must choose to live according to the pattern revealed by Jesus, which we receive in our baptism as a garment into which we must grow. We learn to use our reason and our will; but in prayer and in sacrament we tap into something that runs deeper still; this unseen presence of God, like a river welling up in us, making us saints through whom God may act upon his world.

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At All Saints-tide we celebrate the human lives that drew their sustenance from the hidden springs, and so could provide life-giving water to others. Some are known to the whole world, for all time; some are known to God alone. But they all make God real for us, and all encourage us to seek for the living water, which will sustain us in the life which is truly life. So we turn to God in his sacraments, first to the waters flowing in the font, then to the water-made-wine of the chalice; and in faith open ourselves to all that the Holy Spirit wants to give us and to make us and to do with us.

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