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5th February 2017 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
3 February 2017


Isaiah 58:1-9a,

Today’s reading from Isaiah is similar to last week’s reading from Micah in as much as it contrasts human devised worship with the worship that God desires.

Isaiah’s words are more detailed and have more of a challenge to them.  Micah wanted us to walk humbly with God and Isaiah expects that too but he also wants some action, a rethink of our expectations and lives changed. 

Maurice Andrew suggests that people want to be given credit for their fasting, but the trouble is they serve their own interest on a fast day, oppressing their workers.  Restoration of buildings and institutions are not satisfactory in themselves unless bread is shared with the hungry and the oppressed are allowed to go free. [1]  Angela will read for us

Matthew 5:13-20

Today’s Gospel reading takes up from where we left off last week where we read the eight Beatitudes and noted how they were directed to the disciples.  That was supported, we noticed, by the text that follows about the salt of the earth, the light of the world and the reinforcing of the existing laws which we read today. 

Warren Carter points out that ‘as salt of the earth the community of disciples, not the ruling elite or the synagogue, is to live this flavouring, purifying way of life that is committed to the world’s well being and loyal to God’s purpose’.[2]  The disciples are to live in the world in the midst of the poor in spirit, the mourning, the powerless, and the hungry and thirsty, dominated and exploited by the ruling elite.  It is in such a world that disciples could lose their saltiness, just as salt does when it is mixed with larger quantities of other materials. 

To shine as a light, to be salt, and to be a city on a hill is to be living out the attitudes espoused in the Beatitudes.[3]


Raewyn and I went to see the film Hidden Figures last Monday.  Hidden Figures is the dramatisation of the story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson who were African-American women working on the space programme.   

They were some of the mathematical brains behind one of the great operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit.  That achievement restored the nation's confidence, turned around the Space Race, and galvanized the world.

The visionary trio of women crossed all gender and race lines to inspire generations to dream big.  But nobody told us.  They were the salt hidden in the mix.

At the time when computers were just developing those three women, and the others in their computing unit, made it all happen with nothing more than pencil and chalk.  

The film's timeline compresses events in the three women’s real life careers but those events ran through the civil rights movement and the quest for desegregation. In their own way, the talents of these women were part of those changes. 

As well as getting John Glenn into orbit, and later sending men to the moon, those women’s hard work and talent were part of the advancement of human rights for African Americans and for women. 

In the movie John Glenn specifically asked that Katherine Johnson verify the IBM calculations.  That seems an improbable use of dramatic licence but it actually happened, although in real life she had several days before the launch date to complete the process. 

All three women went on to have exceptional careers and when the space programme became NASA in 1958 segregated facilities were abolished.  Looking back we can see that these women were, through their calling, talents and application, as much a part of the civil rights movement as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. 

Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King were shining lights for the world to see.  Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson glowed in their own world and in reaching for the stars put men on the moon. 

They were all church attending Christians who cared for their families and wanted a better world.  They had parents that dreamed of a better future for them

From the time of slavery onward African Americans took the scripture of the Old and New Testament and read it for their time and place.  Slave owners used the scripture to subdue their slaves with a promise of a better life in heaven. 

But the Gospel message has an urgency that looks for change through individual action.  Jesus said the kingdom of God is at hand. 

So it wasn’t long before ‘Swing low sweet chariot coming for to carry me home’ became:

‘Old John Brown’s body lies mouldering in the grave, while weep the sons of bondage whom he ventured all to save; but tho he lost his life while struggling for the slave, his soul is marching on. 

Of course the rhythm was so good it got tidied up and turned into The Battle Hymn of the Republic but it was grounded in the brutal oppression of African slaves.

By the time of the great civil rights marches there was a real urgency to the lyrics of African American music as people sang.  ‘I ain't a-scared of your jail, because I want my freedom.’

The poets the musicians and the activist were all salt and light.  But so were the faithful people who quietly exercised other God given talents.  They included the people who crunched the numbers that sent men to the moon or even just encouraged their children to dream impossible dreams.

Our own nation began with a sea born migration and the hidden actions of faithful people.  We can only guess what drove Maori across the Pacific but the usual historic motivations are the search for food or flight from violence and slavery.  British colonists were mostly economic refugees and those escaping the class system.

The forming of our nation involved a meeting of two cultures and that is what we celebrate on Waitangi weekend as our defining moment. 

Behind the pageantry and high profile chiefs and officials the sighing the Treaty involved people who in their own way where salt and light in the forming our nation. 

The traditional beacon of Christianity arriving on these shores is undoubtedly Marsden’s sermon on the beach on Christmas Day.  But even reading that story we come across the acts of kindness and friendship between individuals that made the event possible. 

It is also worth considering that, in the time of European settlement amongst Maori and Maori trading with Australia and serving on whaling ships around the world, there must have been many times the gospel was shared in one to one contacts or acts of healing kindness. 

My father had a good knowledge of Te Reo and a number of Maori skills including carving which he learned from the Maori workers on the family farm as he grew up.  Undoubtedly British culture and Christian faith went the other way by the same one on one process. 

Christian mission played a vital part in building the trust that made signing the Treaty possible.  Certainly there was also competition amongst tribes and a desire for power both economic and military among the Maori chiefs.  There was also a desire to choose the most helpful allies in a competing world Maori were discovering. 

But there was a blending of spiritual understanding as well, along with a desire for a better future. 

Furthermore missionaries cultivated an image of the Queen as personally loving towards Maori.  This could be seen as somewhat conniving but the missionaries most likely believed it to be true.  Victoria was a strong willed woman who did a lot to firm up the British monarchy. 

Henry Williams affirmed to Maori at Waitangi that the treaty was an act of love towards them on the part of the Queen. This thinking led many chiefs, who were by then, either Christian or associated with Christianity, to see the treaty in terms of a spiritual bond – a covenant.

Unfortunately some of the future misunderstanding has been because Pākehā see the treaty as simply a legal document that their lawyer can wiggle their way through.  But at the time of forming the treaty there was good intent on behalf of the colonial powers.

James Stephen was the permanent undersecretary in the Colonial Office.  He was possibly the most influential civil servant of his time and was also profoundly influenced by the gospel.  James Stephen’s gospel convictions expressed themselves in a deep commitment to the abolition of slavery championed by his brother-in-law William Wilberforce and others. 

He later became concerned about the negative impacts of colonisation on indigenous peoples.  Wanting to avoid a similar pattern in New Zealand he drafted the instructions for Lord Normandy which were given to William Hobson when he was sent to New Zealand in 1840.  Parts of the instruction were that, all dealings with Māori must be conducted with sincerity, justice, and good faith.  They must not be permitted to enter into any contracts in which they might be ignorant and unintentional authors of injuries to themselves.  The instruction to Hobson was not to purchase from Maori any territory that would be essential, or highly conducive, to their own comfort, safety or subsistence.

The content of the treaty was shaped by Stephen’s instructions and the instructions themselves were shaped by the gospel. [4]

When the trust in the treaty was lost trust in the missionaries was also lost but Maori Christianity emerged in faiths like Ringatū and Ratana.  Rua Kenana founded a self supporting pacifist settlement deep in the Urewera Mountains.  He also formed a bond with his Tūhoe people and the Presbyterian Church.  That connection is still strong today, as I suspect is their link with the Ringatū church. 

Part of the forming of our treaty partnership, the building of trust, the loss of trust and the moving on to new beginnings involved people with Christian conviction who were, and still are, the unseen salt in the recipe.  There have also been individuals that became beacons of light in the darkness and illuminated the way ahead. 

People who were Hidden Figures, which was a great name for a film about three mathematicians that history almost ignored. 

I loved the opening scene in that film where a policeman stops to harass the three women whose car has broken down.  He struggles to believe their space programme IDs but then gazes up at the sky and gets swept away in a wave of patriotism. 

At that point the women get their car mobile again and he insists on providing a police escort so they are not late for work.  That probably never happened but it illustrated how minds can be changed by small unexpected encounters between individuals. 

The racist culture of the policeman was conditioned by his culture.  But suddenly in a chance encounter his understanding was changed.  He met three African Americans who opened his vision to the stars.  That scene was a clever synopsis of one of the films major themes but it also showed how ideas flow across barriers through personal encounters. 

The gospel can be proclaimed in great gatherings by talented orators.  But in today’s Gospel Jesus tells his disciples that they are salt of the earth.  Jesus affirms the quiet person to person encounters, the kindness shared and the child encouraged.  The salt and light of our faith are all those hidden figures throughout history.  People like those small points of light in a dark struggle that are hidden from view as the world watches a man launched into space. 

We can’t all travel into space or perform on the world stage but we can all be salt and light.  

[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), p., 439.

[2] Warren Carter, Mathew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading (London, New York: T&T Clark International 2000),pp.137,138


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