Spiral Staircases

Session Date: 
Sunday, February 5, 2017
Bible Text: 
Matthew 5:13-20


Seventy years ago, a Philadelphia congregation watched as three nine-year old boys were baptized and joined the church. No long after, the church sold the building and disbanded. 

One of those boys was Tony Campolo, now a Baptist minister and professor of sociology. Dr. Campolo notes, “Years later when I was doing research in the archives of our denomination I decided to look up the church report for the year of my baptism. There was my name and Dick White’s — he is now a missionary — and Bert Newman is a professor of theology at an African seminary.” 

Then Campolo read the church report for the year he joined the church. It said, “It has not been a good year for our church. We have lost twenty-seven members. Three joined, and they were only children.” 

What a shame. The church could not see the impact it was having as a community on three lives, and on the world. You know, most of us hear these metaphors Jesus uses of salt and light, and we think, OK, how am I salt. Or how can I shine my light for others. The thing of it is, that’s missing the point. Jesus is not speaking to you, the individual. Jesus is speaking to the community of disciples, to all who follow him. The “You” is a plural indicative for the singular imperative “world.” Which is to say it is corporate, not individual. The community is to be salt for the earth. The community is to be the light of the world.  

We have become enamored with this phrase, as a way of speaking of individuals as “The salt of the earth,” as if it describes people we think of as especially good. That makes it hard to appreciate how strange the phrase originally sounded in that first Jesus sermon. If we substitute another seasoning, we can catch some of that original force: “You are red hot chili pepper for the whole earth.” Jesus’ comment is not about status, -- as if to say “You are the world’s ethical elite.” It is about function, “You must add zest to the life of the whole world.”  

Jesus is speaking to a Jewish community in occupied Rome, addressing concerns of oppression, temple desecration, and persecution. He is addressing questions like “How is the community to act in anxious, dark, uncertain times?”


Yesterday was birthday of both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Rosa Parks. Neither faced easy roads, or simple actions. Both faced oppressive contexts and both took actions that became clarion calls for communities of faith to be “salt,” // “red hot chili pepper,” for the communities, indeed the world, in which they lived. 

In Letters and Papers in Prison, written from a Nazi concentration camp, Bonhoeffer wrote of how the church is to be in the world. “The church is the church only when it exists for others…The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving.

It must tell men of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others. In particular, our own church will have to take the field against the vices of hubris, power-worship, envy, and humbug, as the roots of evil. 

“It will have to speak of moderation, purity, trust, loyalty, constancy, patience, discipline, humility, contentment and modesty. It must not under-estimate the importance of human example (which has its origin in the humanity of Jesus and is so important in Paul’s teaching); it is not abstract argument, but example, that gives its word emphasis and power.”  

Rosa Parks once said, “I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.” And of course the iconic, “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”  

You, the collective, the church, the community, are salt of the earth, as a whole, working, living, praying, doing, being, together, we are to be zest for the world. First for neighbors in Chester, then for neighbors in greater Richmond, finally, neighbors in God’s world.  

It is not easy. Winds of oppression, darkness, fear, anxiety, power worship, fatigue abound. But working together, for the other, will shine a light for all to see. 

Years ago, a friend and I visited the Statue of Liberty. There are three hundred fifty-four stairs to climb to reach the top. Once inside the body it is a dizzying spiral staircase. My memory of the climb up was that at each step your about butt level with the person in front of you. And of course the same for the person behind you. The handrail came up to about mid-thigh. It seemed more for a trail guide, than something to keep you protected from falling. If you are claustrophobic or afraid of heights, keeping your eye on the butt in front of you is a good idea. Looking down, over the rail, just made me queasy. There were also notices about people with asthma or other health conditions as well.  

Going was easier than coming down. As I mentioned, butts in front block the view. On the way down, well, it is easy to peer further into the abyss of the descent. My friend Tim noted the descent clarified the term “downward spiral,” for him. I remember some cutouts to rest and let others go ahead, and I think there is still an emergency elevator, but it is still best, once you start up, just to keep going with the flow. The thing to do is keep moving up, focusing on one step at a time. Just the next step, keeping your eye on the person in front of you. One step at a time until you reach the crown. 

When you reach the crown, the space opens up, natural light and beauty replaces the yellow of the overhead bulbs and the inside metal shell of the body. You gaze at the torch, the harbor, Ellis Island and the city beyond. At such times, when uncertainty, darkness, anxiety and fear are paramount, we are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. That climb up the Statue of Liberty reminds me of two things; One, we are called to love God and love neighbor, all our neighbors.  

And two, we can only do that by following Jesus very, very closely, one step at a time. It will be a steep, scary and exhausting climb. A climb we must not presume to do alone. Remember, Jesus was talking to the disciples, plural, the community, all of us. But we must commit to the journey, even when we don’t know when the beauty, the light, the rest will break through the chaotic darkness we may be experiencing at the moment. The handrail for our climb may only be that, a thigh high guide to the path ahead, something that can’t be counted on to keep us safe. And looking over it, t the valley below, only disorients us or tempts us to hunker down and stop; well we must keep going forward, focusing on the next step, following Jesus right in front of us, quelling our fears and walking toward the light that will illumine the world, and eventually, like Rosa Parks on that long ago bus seat, give rest to all of the world.

© 2017 Gordon B. Mapes III, all rights reserved