Theology of abundance leads to grace, love, openness, says Wiseman

The Rev. Karyn L. Wiseman, pastor at the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, delivers her sermon “A Theology of Abundance” Sunday in the Amphitheater. Dave Munch/Photo Editor

Column by Mary Lee Talbot

The Rev. Karyn L. Wiseman stepped from behind the pulpit and told the congregation she wanted some audience participation. She took a brief survey of meal and food preferences.

“Which would you choose,” she asked. “An all-you-can-eat buffet, or ordering off the menu?” The congregation chose ordering off the menu. “Would you prefer a picnic with friends or a dinner with family on a holiday?” The congregation chose the family dinner. “Would you prefer a church potluck or eating a sandwich and banana pudding alone?” The congregation chose the church potluck.

Wiseman preached at the 10:45 a.m. Sunday morning worship in the Amphitheater. Her sermon title was “A Theology of Abundance,” and the scripture reading was Matthew 14:13-21.

“There is a magic that happens at a church potluck. Someone brings in three-bean salad and the beans are cut wrong. Someone else brings in fruit in a foamy dressing with coconut on top,” she said. “But it is a sacred ritual, like the sacrament of holy communion in the breaking of the bread, when we bless and share the food.”

The story of the feeding of the multitude is told in all four gospels, twice in Mathew and twice in Mark. “There were a whole lot more than 5,000 men there, being the ones who were counted because they mattered,” she said, smiling. “There were 5,000 men and maybe 10,000 women and children.” Wiseman took out a small basket and showed it to the congregation, to illustrate the version of the story where a boy brings a small basket with fish and bread to the scene. She put two small fish and five small loaves of bread in the basket. She asked if the people in the cheap seats could see; even in the front row they were hard to see.

“They are tiny; you can’t distinguish a loaf from a fish because they are too small. But that is an element of the miracle,” Wiseman said. “The disciples thought there was not enough to feed everyone. But the moms said, ‘Kids, take a little, yes, you have to try a bite.’ ” She continued, “Jesus saw the crowd and that the food was only a small amount, but the event was miraculous. The story is told to catch our attention even though it doesn’t make sense.”

In the story, Jesus was trying to get away from the crowd after learning of the death of John the Baptist. Jesus was looking for a place to retreat, but the crowd followed him and he did not give up the opportunity to heal, teach and show compassion. 

“There were people who wanted to feel whole again, to feel loved, for people to see them as someone who mattered and not just see the disease,” Wiseman said. “This was a holy place, an open-air cathedral by the water.”

When the disciples got nervous as it got dark, and wanted to send the crowd to find their own food, Jesus told them, “ ‘No, feed them here.’ The miracle is that God through Jesus Christ produced such bounty that there were 12 baskets left over,” said Wiseman. The disciples had a theology of scarcity. In that way of thinking, people say, “I have mine and I am not going to share, so go away,” Wiseman said. “Jesus had a theology of abundance and people had gathered to hear Jesus, maybe sing and to hear one another and sit and eat.”

When there is that much grace and love, openness and opportunity are present. Wiseman said in the face of such grace, she felt like an imposter. “I asked God, did you call the right person? Am I good enough to preach at Chautauqua? My wife has a word for that; it can’t be said because my parents are watching on the CHQ Assembly.”

When we are bound up in the theology of scarcity, she told the congregation, we hoard ourselves, we don’t share who we really are and we think that will protect us. 

“When Jesus is feeding you, you are siblings, part of God’s beloved community. You are not there because you earned it or deserve it, you are there because God loves you,” Wiseman said. “We think, really? Do you know me all the way down, the mistakes I have made? Do you understand that I did not take your hand in the valley of the shadow of death and let you lead me out? God’s love is abundant, never runs out, never goes away. We need to say, ‘I am a child of God, beloved, imperfect but loved anyway.’”

Jesus, she said, asks us to unclench our hands and open our arms. Jesus calls us to bless and break the bread and give the gift of a meal. “What a miraculous thing.”

Wiseman warned that the theology of abundance has limits. “We can’t think that we have so much that we will never lose it, that we don’t have to take care of the world. We are stewards of the earth and we have to share what is left over. We have to share grace even when we don’t like the people or situation.”

She called on the congregation to live in abundance, to share with others, to care for and protect the earth, to take care not to waste anything. 

“Our traditions differ, we have different expressions of gender and sexuality, nationality and class which can cause us to separate,” she said. “But Jesus didn’t separate the loaves and the fish and give one to some and the other to another group. When we live in abundance, we will love, eat well, and share with others. Amen.”  The congregation applauded.

The Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, senior pastor for Chautauqua, presided. Veronica Biggins, a trustee of Chautauqua Institution, read the scripture. The organ prelude was “Tuba Tune, Op. 15,” by Craig Sellar Lang, played on the Massey Memorial Organ by Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist. The Chautauqua Choir, under the direction of Stafford and accompanied on the organ by Nicholas Stigall, organ scholar, was “We plow the fields, and scatter,” music by Calvin Hampton and text by Mathias Claudius, translated by Jane M. Campbell. The offertory anthem, also sung by the Chautauqua Choir under the direction of Stafford and accompanied by Stigall, was “Look at the world, everything around us,” by John Rutter. The postlude, played by Stafford, was “Festive Toccata,” by Denis Bédard. Support for this week’s chaplaincy and preaching is provided by the Robert D. Campbell Memorial Chaplaincy and the Jackson-Carnahan Memorial Chaplaincy. 


The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.