Saturday, September 30, 2017
Gratitude for the Privilege of Humility: Reflections on Philippians 2.1-13 (RCL Proper 26A, 1 October 2017)
Gratitude for the Privilege of Humility
Reflections on Philippians 2.1-13
RCL Proper 26A
1 October 2017
Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
In 1831 a child was born to Jewish parents in Lithuania. His name was Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky. As a young man he travelled to Germany to study to become a rabbi, but the future that he and his family imagined for him did not come to pass. In Germany Schereschewsky was given a copy of the New Testament in Hebrew which he read and became convinced that Jesus was indeed the Messiah promised to the Jewish people. From Germany Schereschewsky emigrated to the United States where he eventually studied for ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church.
He volunteered for mission work in China and arrived in Shanghai with the American missionary bishop for China in December of 1859. Schereschewski was a gifted linguist and within two years began his life-long project of translating the Bible into various dialects of the Chinese language. His commitment to this ministry led to his becoming Bishop of Shanghai in 1877. In 1879 he founded Saint John’s College. Alumni of that College were among the donors who created Saint John’s College on the campus of the University of British Columbia some one hundred and twenty-five years later.
But Schereschewsky was plagued with ill health. He resigned as bishop in 1883 and eventually was so paralyzed in body that he spent the last twenty-five years of his life able only to use two fingers. With those two fingers he completed an amazing amount of work before his death in Tokyo in 1906.
Four years before his death a visitor remarked that it must have very hard to spend so many years with such limited capacities. Schereschewski responded, “I have sat in this chair for over twenty years. It seemed very hard at first. But God knew best. He kept for the work for which I am best fitted.” From time to time over the last thirty-six years I have found myself coming back again and again to this witness to faithful humility.
As I have mentioned before, we live in a society where so many public figures seem engaged in a constant search for privilege and are plagued by a debilitating sense of entitlement. But this search for privilege and sense of entitlement is not to be ours, the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth. Ours is a path of gratitude for the privilege of humility in the face of God’s self-giving.
In one of the earliest reflections on what it means for Christians to say that ‘when you meet Jesus of Nazareth, you meet God,’ Paul writes to the fledgling Christian community in Philippi to tell them that the key to unity is humility. ‘If our Lord Jesus could shed all the prerogatives and privileges of being God’s Beloved in order to unite us with God in love,’ Paul says, ‘then shall we not also imitate Jesus’ humility in our loving service of one another?’
Humility does not mean denying one’s gifts or pretending that one has no skills or abilities. That is false humility. True humility is found when each one of us gives thanks for and uses the gifts God has given and when each one of us gives thank for and accepts the gifts God has given to other members of the community. True humility has more in common with a symphony orchestra where the beauty and power of music is only realized by the attentive cooperation of each member of the orchestra to her or his companions sitting next to them or sitting in another section. Even soloists depend upon the other members of the orchestra for their unique contribution to be heard and cherished.
True humility recognizes that our goal is unity that emerges from the harmonious coming together of the distinct gifts, the distinct voices, the distinct experiences, the distinct insights that are present within the community. Unity is not afraid of the diversity of human experience. Humility can be a privilege because it frees us from being someone we are not in order to be more fully the person we are. Humility empowers our gratitude because we can give thanks that we are members of a gifted community that seeks to ensure that all God’s people shall be free and enjoy the dignity of the children of God.
The history of the Christian movement is a series of choices made by various communities over the centuries to follow the exhortation of Paul to do nothing ‘from selfish ambition or conceit, but humility to regard others as better than yourselves’, looking ‘not to [our] own interests, but to the interests of others’. (Philippians 2.3-4, NRSV). Each of these choices was the choice to make room and to create a space in which the ‘other’, whoever the ‘other’ might be, could work out their salvation, their discovery of wholeness, with awe for the love of God and with uncertainty as to where such love might lead them.
But sharing in God’s work of creating space for others is rooted in the day to day choices of communities such as ours at Saint Faith’s. Since the end of the summer we have been engaged in various conversations to discern what our gifts as a community are and how best to use those gifts in taking care of the neighbourhood God has given us to tend. Just last Saturday members of the Parish, Church Committee and Trustees spent time identifying what our ministry priorities might be for the next three years. Although we are no so compromised as Bishop Schereschewski was in our freedom of movement, we have been challenged to discern what we do well and how we can build on these strengths.
May we find joy in knowing what our gifts are and how we might use them in the work we are best fitted to undertake. May God give us the grace to make room and create spaces in which we and all God’s children may discover our true identities and reclaim our rightful minds. If with two fingers Bishop Schereschewski could open the Scriptures to the Chinese people, then imagine what we can accomplish with our many hands and many gifts. Thanks be to God!