Thursday, February 10, 2011

Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky -- sermon by Jan Robitscher

“So we do not lose heart.”
(2 Cor. 4:16)
Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky
Bishop of Shanghai, 1906

Jan Robitscher
Thursday, Oct. 14, 2010
All Saints Chapel

Isaiah 12:1-6
Psalm 84:1-6
2 Corinthians 4:11-18
Luke 24:44-48

In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

When I was a child I remember well the visits of my Aunt Ida Mae Flagler Daly. She was actually my great aunt, the sister of my mother’s mother, but we always called her “Aunt Ida Mae”. What was so special about her visits was that she came with her wheel chair, and I watched spellbound to see how she managed everything from makeup to meals, all with barely the use of one arm due to some kind of muscular dystrophy which was never really diagnosed. She was pretty and kind, was a talented artist and designed the first apartments for persons with disabilities in Seattle. Though I never knew her religion or spirituality (I think she was Presbyterian) she was, to me, a saint.

Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky

Today we remember Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky. Also a person of many talents and much patience; a convert to Christianity, a bishop with a gift for languages and, toward the end of his life, an example of patience and perseverance. For he was--and is--a saint in the most classic sense--a man whose life became totally dedicated to God and to the evangelizing work of translating the Scriptures into various Chinese dialects--all this in the face of suffering and disability. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Born in Lithuania in 1831 to a Jewish family, Schereschewsky wanted to become a rabbi, and studied at the Rabbinical College in Zhitomeer in Russia. He also spent two years studying in Germany. While there, he met a group called the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews. That and his own reading of a Hebrew translation of the New Testament (interesting in itself) led to his conversion. In 1854 he emigrated to America and began studies at the Western Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh in order to become a Presbyterian minister, but left there after two years, became Episcopalian and finished his seminary studies at the General Seminary in New York.

It was in response to Bp. Boone’s call for missionary helpers in China that Schereschewsky left for Shanghai. On the way there he learned to read and write Mandarin. From 1862-1875, he translated the Old Testament and parts of the Prayer Book from Hebrew into Mandarin and the New Testament from Greek into Mongolian. He also translated the New Testament from Greek into Mandarin. He then began a translation of the whole Bible into Wenli, another Chinese dialect.

He won so much respect for his work that in 1875 he was elected Bishop, but he declined, and instead earned two doctorates! In 1877 he was elected Bishop again and this time, with some urging, he accepted.

In 1883, Bp. Schereschewsky’s life changed dramatically when he was stricken with a form of Parkinson’s disease, confining him to a wheelchair. He resigned his see. But his paralysis did not diminish his work of translating the Bible into Wenli, typing some two thousand pages with the one finger of his hand that did work. He is an extraordinary example of St. Paul’s words:

So we do not lose heart. Even though our
outer nature is wasting away, our inner
nature is being renewed day by day.

Chinese translation
It is worth noting that, if Schereschewsky had been paralyzed any sooner, he would never have been educated, much less ordained. His disability was considered an impediment. Our own buildings here at CDSP which, until recently, were not accessible, were built for able-bodied men. God only called those who were physically perfect, the “unblemished lamb” of Leviticus (21:18ff). But there is something more subtle. Where formerly Schereschewsky was recognized (and chosen bishop) for his accomplishments in languages, education and works of evangelism, it is sad to note that after he became disabled, the accolades faded, and the attitudes toward persons with disabilities in general, and Bp. Schereschewsky in particular were fraught with negative images and labels. Here is a description of him at the end of his life. One who knew Bishop Schereschewsky in Tokyo said of him:

"I have often wondered at the patience of the man as he sat with his Hebrew Bible before him, reading it into Chinese for the Chinese scribe who acted as amanuensis. That in itself was a very pathetic sight, but far more pathetic it must have been to watch the crippled scholar working all by himself in America, and slowly spelling out his translation with the aid of a typewriter and one finger, which was only a little less useless than the others. [The Churchman, October 20, 1906.]

Bishop at his work

But Schereschewsky had no such thoughts of himself or of God. Four years before his death, he said,

I have sat in this chair for over twenty years.
It seemed very hard at first. But God knew best.
He kept me for the work for which I was best fitted.

For he knew, as St. Paul said:

(2 Cor. 4: 17-18)
For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us
for an eternal weigh of glory beyond all measure. For
we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot
be seen; for what can be seen is temporary but what
cannot be seen is eternal.

Maybe--just maybe--God really does call those who are not physically perfect. St. Paul attests to this:

 (1Cor.1: 27-28)
But God chose what is foolish in the world
to shame the wise; God chose what is weak
in the world to shame the strong; God chose
what is low and despised in the world, even
things that are that no one might boast
in the presence of God.

Almost twenty years after Schereschewsky, Henry Winter Syle became the first deaf person to receive Holy Orders. But it would take the church another hundred years to even begin the process of changing canon law to officially permit the ordination of persons with disabilities. And even at that, it does not happen often. Both men were, by the grace given them, able to glorify God not in spite of their disabilities, but through them. Here is some Good News!

But what about today? Are our attitudes really that different from the comment about Schereschewsky at the end of his life? Joni Erickson Tada was paralyzed in an accident, uses a wheelchair and is often in a lot of pain. Like my Aunt Ida Mae, she taught herself to paint and, holding pencils in her mouth, expresses herself in art, as well as through music and writing. She says, of our “culture of comfort”:

We want to erase suffering out of the dictionary. We want to eradicate it,
avoid it, give it ibuprofen, institutionalize is, divorce it, surgically exorcise it,
do anything but live with it.

Like Bp. Schereschewsky, she has been looked upon as “pathetic”. Like the good bishop, like Henry Winter Syle and my great Aunt, Joni has found in God--by God’s grace--a way to live through her disability.

I only remember receiving one short letter from Aunt Ida Mae, but I will never forget what she said. From one person with a disability to another she wrote,“The alternative to a good education is unthinkable!” I am grateful that Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky was able to be educated and to use his education and gifts right to the end of his life. I am grateful that, finally schools of all kinds, including ours, are more accessible to persons with disabilities. I am grateful for the education I have received. And I hope that, in addition to being a shining example of a good life well lived, Bp. Schereschewsky can add his prayers that one day it will be common --or at least less uncommon--to see persons with disabilities in all leadership positions and all ministries in the Church.

Bp. Schereschewsky, Henry Winter Syle, my Aunt Ida Mae and Joni Erickson Tada had at least one thing in common other than their disabilities. Each was able to say YES to the call of God, each in their own way, through their various gifts and talents. Each found in God the grace to persevere in that call in the midst of suffering. And each lay hold of a faith beyond seeing that leads through suffering to resurrection. May we join with them in celebrating this greatest Good News of all!

Sources: The Rev. Michael Dresbach,

Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, September 24, 2010
Report on Joni Erickson Tada

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