All Saints’ Sermon
Sunday, November 5, 2017
Ex Opera Operato. It’s certainly not a household phrase. However, this phrase informs what we do in worship and how we understand not just our worship, but, perhaps, our very lives. Ex Opera Operato. It is a Latin phrase meaning “from the work worked.” It refers to the sacraments deriving their power from Christ’s work (ex opere operato Christi–from the work worked by Christ) rather than the role of humans. The sacrament, say the Eucharist, is efficacious not because we get it, understand it, are worthy of it, but because it flows freely and graciously from Christ.
It may seem a rather esoteric way to begin a reflection on All Saints’ Sunday, talking about the efficacy of the sacraments. It’s kind of like arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Yet, bear with me for a second. While we may like to believe that there has been civility and concord within the church throughout its two millennia existence, one need only review bits of history to see how divisive our tradition truly is. And whenever rules arise–like Ex Opera Operato–it’s always important to ask why they came about in the first place. Clearly, something was at stake. The rule didn’t just drop out of the sky. It addressed a certain need or issue within the community.
And I suspect that you can sense the need or issue that certainly bothered people at one point, and, I bet, continues to raise people’s hackles. The issue? What do you do with the scallywags and rascals who were not just receiving the sacrament in the Church, but were, in fact, presiding over the whole shootin’ match. Right? Basically, if the local priest was an idiot at best or a scoundrel at worst, how do
you know that the sacrament isn’t also tainted by their doltishness or their
depravity? You can just see it. On one hand, it’s almost funny. How to get along with someone you don’t particularly like or agree with but who leads worship. On the other, it’s tragic, because there have been a lot of bad actors throughout history. Does the sacrament depend on them? Enter Ex Opera Operato. From the work worked by Christ. The sacrament isn’t dependent upon the worthiness of the presider, nor the constitution of the receiver. It possesses value, worth, efficacy, it works because of Christ.
Which is, perhaps, also the undergirding principle of all of our gatherings and, especially, as we observe All Saints’ Sunday. We hear the word saint, and we think of amazing people. People of great faith and conviction. People who are canonized in one part of our tradition. They rocked! And, one can argue, that it is always important to have models for us. People who inspire us. This is what we can all be. However, the other side to this type of understanding of the saint is that it depends on us. And the problem is that when we are honest with ourselves, we know ourselves too well. Even saintly Mother Theresa possessed deep doubt and despair at times.
Thus, one of the great insights of Martin Luther was his understanding of our anthropology. We are simul iustus et peccator. That is, we are simultaneously saint and sinner. And the saint piece is, like Ex Opera Operato, because of Christ. Indeed, think of the beatitudes that Jesus holds out in our gospel today:
Blessed are the poor in spirit .
Blessed are those who mourn
Blessed are the meek
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness Blessed are the merciful
Blessed are the pure in heart
Blessed are the peacemakers
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake
Not only might you question what you signed up for upon hearing them–blessed are those who mourn? Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake?–but also one’s ability to achieve purity in heart and mercy and poverty of spirit at every turn. Particularly, how do you fulfill the beatitudes in a world that is at best indifferent to such postures in life or–and more often–is downright hostile to these ways of being? Right? We say we value these values, but how are they lived out in our work, our relationships, our collective lives? Is meekness rewarded? Is mercy the norm? And how many are clamoring to be the one who is poor in spirit?
Thus, while we certainly are invited into this way of being by Jesus, and we glimpse the alternative vision of the world that he offers, we also recognize the Herculean effort to fulfill this exhortation, and if our worth and value before God is dependent upon getting each one right all the time, then we are all in serious trouble. Hence, the perspective of Christ working the work applies here as well. Saints are we all because of Christ. Which doesn’t mean that we countenance mediocrity or abide apathy. Ironically, we are freed to live out the beatitudes precisely because we do not need to fulfill them. Because they are done in Christ, we now see the world in a different way, impacting our engagement with others, our understanding of our own place in the world and our observance of All Saints and remembering those who have gone before us. It’s not dog-eat-dog and who can medal in the Spiritual Olympics. Rather, we are all in this together, those alive and those whom we remember.
A story. . . .
Khizr Khan is not a household name, but if you watched the Democratic Convention during the summer of 2016, you could not have missed him and his wife Ghaz ala. He spoke passionately about being a citizen and the ultimate sacrifice that one makes. He knows of what he was speaking. His son, Captain Humayn Khan, was killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq in 2004. He became a Gold Star father. Indeed, the twitter storm that followed his speech led to his developing a book, An American Family, and a recent promotional interview on NPR’s Morning Edition.
The interview ranged over a variety of issues, including his Democratic Convention speech, coming the United States, and, obviously, the death of his son. The question to this last issue was the final piece of the interview, but it resonates even now. Khan was asked how often he thinks of his son, now dead for 13 years. He replied:
A similar question was asked of Ghaz ala, and this is what Ghaz ala said: “Why do these people ask me that? … I see him every day. I hear him every
day. He is here.”
And then Khan concludes, “ Because of our handicap, because of our limitation, we may not be able to communicate directly with them, see them physically. But they are with us. We feel the presence of Captain Humayun Khan every moment, every day.”
Indeed, because of the work worked by Christ we know that we are connected, even time and space cannot divide. We commune today with those in our midst, and we commune with the saints in light. We are one in Christ, and that is what we remember this day, as we remember the blessing of those loved ones who now reside in the nearer presence of God.