A Lenten Series on Doing the Work of BEING TRANSFORMED

“Opening our Hearts and Minds”

Psalm 25:1-10; Mark 1:9-16

February 21, 2021


Psalm 25:1-10

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.

O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me.

Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.

Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.

Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.

Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.

Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;

according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!

Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.

He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.

All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,

for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.


At our congregational meeting today at noon, we will receive our Annual Report.

As we prepared the report, I was reminded of how impressed I have been by your faithfulness

in continuing the church’s ministries during the pandemic.

And I have been so pleased by my colleagues, by their creativity and perseverance.

As I said in my opening letter to the report,

I am grateful, so grateful, to have faced the challenges of this past year with you –

our persevering congregation, our faithful elders, and our dedicated staff members.

Thank you for all you do to support and encourage the ministries of Decatur Presbyterian Church.


Today, we begin a Lenten worship series called “Doing the Work”.

This series will be closely related to our Faith Formation curriculum called by the same name.

Our Faith Formation series, spearheaded by Allysen Schaaf,

includes books and articles to read, videos and documentaries to watch,

a personal journal, and the encouragement of an accountability partner,

all focused upon the Matthew 25 theme of “dismantling structural racism”.

If you have not yet registered, I encourage you to do so.

Our worship series will be related, but will focus on scripture texts and themes

which bid us turn our attention first to God.

As we turn our attention to God in prayer and scripture reading and worship,

we will be more equipped, more prepared, to “do the difficult work” that we have been called to do.


The worship theme for today is Opening our Hearts and Minds.

This worship series is intended to ground our challenging work of studying racism

in Holy Scripture, in the exploration of God’s ways, of God’s truths, of God’s paths.

As we worship together over these coming weeks, my hope is that, more and more,

we will view any challenging social ills, like racism and poverty, through the lens of Holy Scripture.


Just after his baptism, and before he began his public ministry, Jesus was compelled by the Holy Spirit

to go into the wilderness, where he stayed some 40 days. 40 days is a long time,

a long time to listen for God’s voice, a long time to face temptations, a long time to be vulnerable.

Hear the Word of God from Mark 1:9-16.

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart

and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven,

“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying,

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.


Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal priest and prolific author, tells many great stories.

One of her stories is about facing difficult truths.

“Several years ago now,” she writes, “I attended a weekend retreat with about seventy other people,

where the opening exercise was to tell a story about someone who had been Christ for us in our lives.

After we had all thought about it a little while, some people got up to tell their stories to the whole group.

There was one about a friend who stayed put through a long illness while everyone else deserted,

and another one about a neighbor who took the place of a father who self-destructed.

One after the other, they were stories of comfort, compassion, and rescue.

The conference room turned into a church, where we settled into the warmth of each other’s company.

Jesus our friend was there with us and all was right with the world,

until this one woman stood up and said,

“Well, the first thing I thought about when I tried to think who had been Christ to me was,

‘Who in my life has told me the truth so clearly that I wanted kill him for it?”‘

The woman burst our bubble, but she was onto something vitally important

that most of us would be glad to forget:

namely, that the Christ is not only the one who comforts and rescues us.

The Christ is also the one who challenges and upsets us,

telling us the truth so clearly that we will do appalling things to make him shut up.

If you do not believe that, maybe it is because you have not recognized Christ

in some of the offensive people God has sent your way.

Not all of them, mind you, but some of them – people sent to yank our chains

and upset our equilibrium so we do not confuse our own ideas of God with God.”

(from Home By Another Way, Barbara Brown Taylor, Cowley Publications, 1999)


When it comes to the subject of racism,

white people have had a long history of confusing our own ideas of God with God,

confusing what we have been taught about human beings with the truth of Holy Scripture,

confusing our economic, political and religious temptations with the self-giving way of the cross.

In Psalm 25, the psalmist exclaims:

Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.

Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation;

for you I wait all day long.


We engage in Bible study, we pray, and we participate in worship

NOT simply to reaffirm our own ways, but in order to know God’s ways,

NOT simply to be encouraged in paths of our own choosing,

but to walk more faithfully in paths of God’s choosing,

NOT simply to confirm what we have thought to be true, but to discover God’s truth.

Time and time again over the centuries, what the Church has accepted as “truth”

has been discovered to NOT be God’s truth.


An important question these days is: who is peddling “truth”?

Much of what you and I consume as “truth” about politics, for example,

comes from corporations who are selling advertising.

These corporations have a bottom line of profit to attend to; they are seeking NOT to please God,

NOR to build up our nation, but to offer their shareholders maximum profit.

Media corporations also often tend to have a specific agenda which they are supporting.

If we follow the money, we might be more circumspect about which media we consume.


One reason that Jesus had to go off into the wilderness for forty days

was to remove him for a while from all the voices that would be speaking in his ears.

There were divisive politics in the first century, just as there are in the 21st century.

There were urban elite of Jerusalem, who were closely aligned with the powerful Temple priests.

There were sympathizers who were aligned with the Roman occupiers,

who were mostly interested in “keeping the peace”,  in “law and order”, you might say,

for the sake of stability of their investments.

There were others in the Israel who were totally against the occupiers.

They were called Zealots and they were plotting revolution against Rome;

they were involved in violent, political uprisings.

Then there were the rural folks of Galilee, who lived a long way from the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem,

whose goals in life were different, and who were far more concerned with the local synagogues

than they were the sacrificial system at the Temple in Jerusalem,

more concerned with agricultural viability and feeding their families than with national politics.


All of these groups, among others, quickly became aware of Jesus of Nazareth.

Anyone who drew thousands to listen to them would quickly be judged,

and either quickly recruited to one’s cause or silenced.

When Jesus began his public ministry, he would need to be prepared…

prepared for the questions that would come, prepared for inevitable criticism,

prepared for the temptations that would be offered, prepared for the attempts to silence him.


As Mark reports, Jesus was compelled by the Spirit, in the Greek literally “driven” into the wilderness

by the Holy Spirit, in order to be prepared, in order to listen to God before all others,

in order to face temptations – the economic, political, and religious temptations –

that would inevitably come.


Earlier in today’s service, you saw the wall that I built in front of our cross on the lawn.

The wall represents how structural racism has

blocked ourselves and others

from moving closer to the foot of the cross. Systemic racism has prevented us

from deepening our discipleship.

The wall was built of some 40 stones,                       

each of which will be removed

between Ash Wednesday and Easter.

The stones will, over time, transition from a wall

that separates us from the cross to a circle

around the cross, where many can gather.

Our hope is that the books and videos and articles we consume over the coming weeks could each be like

a stone for us – like one more mindset or barrier

to the cross that can be removed.


The best part of this wall project has been the people I have met. The first person I met was Paul

from Jamaica who helped me load the stones

in the pouring down rain last Monday at the Garden Center at Home Depot.

Paul was interested in what we were doing at the church and said to call him anytime I needed help.

Later that evening, when I arrived at the church with the stones,

one of our Threshold friends, Ricky Sims, walked by and asked if I needed help. I said “Sure, thanks”.

Ricky, one of the nicest guys in downtown Decatur, helped me unload every stone

from the back of my son’s truck.

The next day, on Mardi Gras, on Tuesday, as I was constructing the wall,

Joe Thibodeaux stopped by. Joe said he was a concrete man.

Joe had worked with concrete for years and wondered what I was doing.

As we talked, I discovered that he had worked with DPC member Charles Scott on landscaping

and knew Charlie well. Joe and I chatted the whole time I built the wall,

as he shared some of the struggles he was facing and shared his concern about a loved one.

On Ash Wednesday, February 17, I met Selina while taking pictures of the wall.

Selina says she appreciates how many “non-argumentative Christians”

that she has meet between the Marta station and the library in Decatur!

She has been working with Threshold volunteers for a while and truly appreciates that ministry.

On this past Friday, I met a young man named Dee along with his friend.

I didn’t get a picture of Dee, but these two young men in their twenties had noticed what we were doing.

They had read the signs at the cross;

they were curious about our project and glad that our church was doing this.


Ever since 1991, when I stood in a soup kitchen line with a guy named Chuck

at St Luke’s in downtown Atlanta as part of a seminary class,

I have learned a great deal about homelessness through talking to people without a home.

I was surprised at the time that Chuck had been reading through the book of Romans

in his pocket sized Bible. There in the soup kitchen line, we had a very interesting conversation

about the Apostle Paul’s view of the salvation of Jews and Gentiles.

Over the years, my mind has been stretched by the stories of persons experiencing homelessness,

of who they are and how they happened to be where they are.

And my heart has been opened when I have learned what they truly care about and whom they love.


My hope for the coming weeks – and years – is that our congregation will learn more deeply

about the personal impacts of structural racism in America.

And I hope that part of this learning will occur by talking more openly with people of color,

or better, by listening more intently to people of color.

Yes, the books and videos and articles are important and will be transformative,

and I trust you will digest them fully.

But I also hope that we will all seek to deepen our relationships with persons of a different skin color,

and that, if they may be so gracious to us, we may learn from them,

as we open our hearts and minds to their experiences of being non-white in America.


The forty days of Lent is a long time to be in a wilderness of sorts, to be beyond our comfort zone.

Forty days is a long time to be vulnerable, to be at risk, to be separated from what is most familiar.

Forty days is a long time to face temptations, to be tempted to the trappings of power and prestige

and by “the ways things always have been.”

Forty days is a long time to depend upon the angels to wait upon us, to offer us daily sustenance.


We may get weary of “doing the work” this Lenten season…

But we can remember what was accomplished in the wilderness for Jesus.

Jesus became fully prepared to face any temptation.

Jesus became prepared to sort through all the voices, and to listen for God’s voice above all.

Jesus remembered his full dependence upon the grace of God for his life and for his ministry.

Would that the Church have a similar experience this Lenten season!

As the psalmist exclaims:  Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.

Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.


Rev. Dr. Todd Speed

Decatur Presbyterian Church

Decatur, Georgia