Centering our churches on the world outside our walls

December 9, 2021 by Larissa Kwong Abazia

This year we desperately need a season of Epiphany. Often highlighting the visit of the magi and marked with the packing up of Christmas decorations until next year, a continual gaze on the Light of the World would do us some good. We continue to be deep in the COVID-19 pandemic, forced to learn the Greek alphabet with exasperation. Our churches are fully virtual or in person, hybrid gatherings, or not meeting at all. We wonder if the familiar comforts of Christian worship will ever be the same. Our political and social spheres grow more and more divided. Many cannot catch a moment, a breath even, as they navigate the challenges of everyday life.We need a season to uncover who Christ was/is and who we are/can be.

In Luke 4:14-30 (weeks three and four in the Season of Epiphany), Jesus returns to the synagogue in Nazareth. Many curious people arrived at the temple that day as word about miracles and teachings expanded beyond Capernaum. The anticipation for their hometown hero was probably palpable! Jesus reads words of the prophet Isaiah before sitting down to teach the congregation. Their smiles quickly turn to frowns or, at the very least, looks of confusion, when Jesus bluntly tells them that the message isn’t for them … at least not in the way that they expect.

Nazareth was a small, insignificant town. The potential for Jesus to exercise his ministry here would put the community on the map. Surely if he acted for people in other areas, he would do so for his own former neighbors and faith community?! The recognition he could brings to their area would transform their social and political influence. In addition, it might take miracles and engaging preaching to convince people who knew a younger Jesus to see him as more than “Joseph’s son.”

Christ witnesses to his ministry when he reads the scroll of Isaiah’s prophetic words. He is anointed by the Holy Spirit to 1) bring good news to the poor, 2) proclaim release to the captives, 3) recover sight to the blind, and 4) let the oppressed go free. Unfortunately, the gathered faith community gets it wrong when they believe that those signs and actions are for them. In fact, they become so angry that they attempt to throw Jesus off of a cliff at the edge of town!

It would be easy for us to criticize them yet how often do our churches focus internally, concerned for our own sustainability before the needs of others?! This is especially true after an ongoing pandemic as less people return to church and we struggle to find volunteers to serve on committees or lead programs. We are yearning for a new direction that will “save us,” the single key unlocking a door to a new place solving all of the current problems and challenges.

Epiphany reminds us of the Messiah who touched the untouchables, centered the stories of the marginalized, visited the forgotten, and healed the sick and brokenhearted. We are called to do likewise by enacting ministries not tethered solely to our internal community. The religious crowd that day wanted Jesus to be a Messiah for them, missing the abundant love given for a body inclusive of as well as beyond themselves.

Questions to ponder:

  • What ministries bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recover sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free?
  • How does your approach need to shift, change, expand, and grow? How can you encourage others to do likewise?

Rev. Larissa Kwong Abazia (she/her) is an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and founder of Courageous Spaces, inviting others to co-create spaces for disruption, transformation, and change. In addition, she works as a consultant with Vandersall Collective and a coach for NEXT Church. Larissa has dedicated her life and career to racial and gender justice, exploring the ways the intersections of all parts of one’s identity can be embraced and celebrated. This work brought her to denominational leadership, including service as the Vice-Moderator of the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA) and as a current member of the General Assembly Committee on Representation. She’s a founding board member of the Collective Foundation, an organization researching and providing training concerning the fundraising practices in Christian communities of color. She also serves as a board member of More Light Presbyterians.