June 27, 2013 Tom Berlin

Sermon at Virginia Annual Conference

Some of you have asked to see the sermon I preached in the Virginia Annual Conference Session for the Ordering of Ministry service.  I am not aware of anyplace where it is available by video, so I have posted the manuscript that I used.  While my remarks varied a bit from the manuscript, this captures the majority of what I shared.

Undeniably Committed

Matthew 14:33-52

June 22, 2013


It is an exciting night full of people who love you, people who are proud of you.

I remember this journey in my own life.  I felt called by God.  I applied to seminary and was accepted.  I was home the summer before I went there and ran into an old friend who I will call Ms. Smith.  She was one of those adults who had encouraged me for many years.  She said, you look great!  You have graduated from college?   I told her that I had.  She said, what’s next for you?

I said, I enter seminary in August.  I think I am going to be a pastor.  I will never forget what she said.  She said, oh.  Really?  Why are you doing that?  I thought you would really make something of yourself.

I don’t think that she meant it to come out quite the way it did.  She was surprised. She had not heard.  But there it was. I knew when she said, really make something of yourself, she was referring to a career that would enable me to have access to wealth and influence.  She just wanted me to have the treasures of this world.

The gospel lesson tonight speaks of treasure.

Matthew 13:44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

I think Jesus is telling us that if we want to find the treasure in our vocation, the treasure, which is the Reign of God, we have to see its unique value and beauty.  That takes special eyes.  Not everyone sees it. Not everyone understands why you are doing what you are doing.  There will be days you won’t understand it either.

It’s in the parable.  If the man discovered a treasure and was able to buy the field where it was buried, it means someone else forgot it was there.  They forgot its value.  Or maybe the person who buried it died, and never thought it was important enough to tell anyone else about it.

That pearl, do you really think that merchant was the first one to see it?  How many hands did it pass through before it came to him?  This merchant wasn’t the first to see it, but the first to grasp its beauty, its unique and unprecedented value.

You have to have eyes to see.  You apparently have developed such eyes.  Because here you sit embarking on a vocation of service for God that will be expressed in a variety of ways, all under the heading of ministry. 

Be aware of what you are doing.  To find this treasure you have to be more than committed.  The first person, in order to gain this treasure, sold everything else.  The second one, in order to gain this great pearl, had to sell all the good pearls in which they were already invested. Jesus is not asking if you are committed.  He’s telling you that if you want to find the treasure of the Reign of God, you are going to have to sell out.  Set everything else aside.  Be undeniably committed.

I am sure that when people heard that the person buying the field and the merchant seeking the pearl sold everything to get that one thing, they thought, I wonder if they are OK?  You are that person.

And I know why you did it.  I know why you are here.  I know because I have experienced it myself.  I never knew quite knew what to call what I was experiencing.  I would see it sometimes.  Like when I read Psalm 146 (CEV):


The person whose help is the God of Jacob—
the person whose hope rests on the Lord their God—
is truly happy!
God: the maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
God: who is faithful forever,
    who gives justice to people who are oppressed,
who gives bread to people who are starving!
The Lord: who frees prisoners.
    The Lord: who makes the blind see.
The Lord: who straightens up those who are bent low.
The Lord: who loves the righteous.
    The Lord: who protects immigrants,
who helps orphans and widows,
but who makes the way of the wicked twist and turn!

10 The Lord will rule forever!

When I read that, I just feel my spirit soar.  That vision of God is so beautiful, and so wondrous, that its truth is worthy of all we have and all we are.  If you don’t know how to articulate why you are here tonight, why you have made the sacrifices, and why you are entering this vocation, Jesus gives us a word for it: JOY.   Jesus says that it was in joy that this person went and sold all they had and bought that field.

Jesus tells us that is what the Reign of God is like.  Selling out, being undeniably committed with JOY.  I don’t trust ministers of any type: deacons, local pastors, provisional members, or elders, who lack joy.  You can smell it a mile away.  Joyless people attempting to serve God who have little more to offer than the most recent complaint about what is going poorly or the latest cynical commentary about the bride of Christ.

I don’t trust myself when I lose my joy.  Ministry can do that. I left the church I serve early the other day. I told someone I was no longer fit for human consumption.  I needed to be with the Lord.

Joy is what draws you here.  This is not to say that its always going to be a load of fun after tonight.   A couple of days ago a 14 year old boy, who was recently confirmed at Floris UMC, died of accidental electrocution.  I will leave here tonight so that, with my colleagues, we can minister to the church we serve tomorrow.  A church that is hurting right now.  Monday will be the funeral.  We have been a community of sorrow.  But even this is a treasure.  That people pull back the curtain and allow you to step in during the saddest moment of their lives and tell you things they can barely tell themselves.  Even in that we see the beauty of God’s love and provision.  We don’t have to do this, friends.  We get to do this.  That is why Paul said to count it ALL joy.

It’s joy that makes you sell out.  Joy that leads you to be undeniably committed.

You are treasure hunters.  You have no idea where that quest may take you.  Here is what you may not know: places of wonder and abandon lie before you.

13 years ago a group of us entered into a partnership with the Sierra Leone Annual Conference to establish a home for war-effected children called the Child Rescue Centre.  A GBGM missionary, Rev. John Yambasu, founded the center with 40 children who were living on the street and in the market place.  One of those children was Abduli Swarai.  I first met Abduli in 2002, when he was about 11 years old.  I have seen him about every 18 months since as he has grown and matured.  He was able to visit Floris UMC in April. I took him to the sanctuary to let him see where he would speak the next day.  He looked around the Sanctuary.  I showed him the four inlays in our Lord’s Table that contain wood from Sierra Leone, an idea we got from Woodlake UMC.  Abduli ran his finger over the wood and smiled, like it was a touchtone to his home.  I said, Let’s go.   He said, Rev. Tom, I must first pray in this place.  He knelt before the fountain in the chancel of the sanctuary. He prayed for some time.

When he finished, I said, “Abduli, what did you pray about?”  He says, “Well, I told God that when I was a small child and living on the streets and there was no one to look out for me, this was one of the churches, these were some of the people who took me in, who cared for me, fed me and got me to school.  And I just wanted to give God thanks for that while I was in this place.”

When I looked at Abduli, I realized that I was looking at one of the pearls of great price.  I was looking at the treasure in the field.  My joy over what God had done in his life was great, but it was multiplied when I considered what God had done in my life and the lives of all those who had invested in him and the other children.  I thought about all the hours that had been invested, and all the money.  I thought about how hard it had been digging for that treasure.   But in that moment, seeing Abduli pray, I was so full of joy that my heart nearly burst.

I could tell you so many other stories.

Like the people in the job training programs in our facility that are finding real jobs because a Deacon, Rev. Martha Real, found her treasure.

I could tell you about the young woman who walked in recently with ash gray skin to our Celebrate Recovery service.  She said, I’ve been off heroin for 8 weeks.  I don’t believe in 12 step programs, but heard this one had Jesus so I figured I should give it a try.

I’d tell you about Jeffery, a young man with special needs who hands out bulletins and greets those who come to worship every week, and his buddy, Zac who hangs out with him and the pride and joy on Jeffery’s face when he was confirmed this year.

I’d tell you about the family that was baptized and accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior at our Spanish–speaking service last week, which was led by a Local Pastor and one is about to become a Local Pastor.

I would tell you how, three weeks ago, I got to help with HIV testing for pregnant women in Africa who would have no access to such medical care except for Mercy Hospital, which has been supported and nurtured by churches in Virginia and the wonderful people at UMCOR.

You have no idea where this thing will take you.  But I’ll tell you this.  If you pursue this calling with abandon, if you sell out, if you cut ties with the complainers and the whiners and the cynics and throw your lot with those who have shovel in hand and sweat on their brow, it doesn’t matter where you end up, it will be treasure after treasure after treasure, pearl after pearl after pearl.

You will dig long and hard, hours and days at a time wondering if there is really any treasure to be found.  You dig giant holes, and wonder how you are missing it, until one day you hear the shovel clank against the chest. But the treasure you find is of such value and such beauty and worth that it makes it all worthwhile.  It is the treasure that is worth the sacrifice of all the other treasures.

You see, Ms. Smith was wrong.  She thought I could make something of my life.  I have always known I couldn’t.  But as Bishop Cho reminds us when we are attune to the Holy Spirit, God can, by calling us to find a treasure that really is a treasure. The Lord is giving us far more than we could ask or imagine.

So Congratulations. I am so glad that you have left it all, to do that which God has graciously called you to do.

Sell out.  Be undeniably committed.   And count it all joy.



Tom Berlin

Rev. Tom Berlin is the Lead Pastor of Floris United Methodist Church. Tom was raised in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley and has lived in Virginia most of his life. He is a graduate of Virginia Tech and his Master of Divinity is from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He has co-authored three books and is the author of several small group studies. Tom and his wife Karen have four daughters.

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