Jesus said to me, “Sell everything you have and distribute it to the dirt-poor, for through this you will have a storage in the heavens. Then come, follow me.” I remember very clearly the day this happened. I was sitting in my cubicle in CA, where I worked at Edwards AFB as a flight test engineer for the US Air Force. I knew instantly in that moment that I was being called to walk out, give everything away, leave that life of building weapons of war behind, and follow Jesus. Like a deer in headlights, I was facing the very call that Jesus had given to the rich man in our text for today.
In the past I had easily concluded that Jesus’ words to the rich man couldn’t be for everyone. Jesus was only speaking to this one, particular man because he knew that this man loved his stuff in his heart more than god, this man was an exception—or so I had been told. And did I ever want to believe that. Jesus’ words of “sell everything you have and distribute it to the dirt-poor,” couldn’t be for everyone for Jesus couldn’t possibly desire his followers to have nothing. Besides, I hadn’t personally known anyone who had obeyed it or even tried to obey it. Everyone said it was simply a story about not holding on to our possessions on the inside—and I wasn’t doing that, my stuff didn’t mean all that much to me.
But the Jesus I kept encountering in the gospel saw no difference between the inside and the outside. For Jesus, the one always reflects the other. Even the best mask cannot hide the reality of the fruit we produce—and that fruit always exposes the truth of our hearts. Whether we want to or not, we all wear our hearts on our sleeves as we live out our lives.
In our text, we find Jesus “listening” to a rich man explain how he had been faithful to god’s will. What Jesus heard was a man trying to explain how he had “guarded” the right rules, a man focused on trying to cover up the evidence of his everyday life that everyone could see. Simply looking at this man’s life showed that he did not understand the Torah at all. For the Torah had declared that every seven years all debts had to be completely forgiven and all slaves had to be released and every forty-nine years all land had to be redistributed equally. Jesus had begun his ministry with the declaration of these very “Sabbaths” and “Jubilees,” saying he had come “to declare the gospel to the dirt-poor,” “to proclaim freedom for the captives,” and “to proclaim the year of the lord’s welcome.” God’s will is a love that takes care of all neighbors just as much as we love ourselves—a love that forgives all debts, releases all slaves, and redistributes all wealth.
As this rich man built up and held on to his wealth he was refusing to celebrate the Sabbath and Jubilee of the lord and there was no way he could hide this fact. If this man truly loved his poor neighbors in his heart, he would redistribute all of his wealth, he would hold nothing back. And so Jesus saw the heart of the rich man by seeing the poor people in the world who didn’t have their daily needs and then seeing this man’s amassed wealth. The man had neighbors who were going hungry, that very day, while he had storehouses for himself and his family. This man’s life and amassed wealth, showed Jesus, that he was not following god’s will, that he was not loving his neighbors as much as he loved himself and his family.
As I sat there in my cubicle in California I knew, for the first time, beyond all doubt, that Jesus’ call to the rich man was for me and was for all who would dare follow this Jesus. “Sell everything you have and distribute it to the dirt-poor, for through this you will have a storage in the heavens. Then come, follow me.” In that moment, I felt the presence of the lord’s spirit throughout my whole body—it was overwhelming. The call was crystal clear, it was intoxicating—drop everything and devote my entire life to learning how to live like Jesus. If, deep in my heart, I trusted my heavenly father to care for me and if I loved my neighbors who were in need that day—truly loved them as I loved myself—then I had to live differently, I had to let go of tomorrow, I had to let go of building a future for myself and my loved ones.
So is this how I came to be standing here before you today? No. I did not obey. I said “no” to selling all I had and staking my life on the care of my heavenly father. I said “no” to Jesus. I walked away “deeply grieved” that day—or rather, I stayed there in my cubicle and continued on with my job, with the life that I had made for myself. There were so many reasons to say “no”—at least 70,000 reasons to say “no”—for I was making over $70,000 a year. I was putting away 10% into retirement. I had health insurance. I had a massive savings account. I was looking at buying a house. I was building a life for myself. And yet I was also giving over 10% to the church and to charities. I was “helping” the poor. I gave my share, they got the scraps from my table. Wasn’t that enough? I was doing exactly what the world and my church were telling me to do. How could I dare destroy all that, in one fell swoop, because of something Jesus told a rich man 2000 years ago? Where would I go? What would I do? How would I be taken care of? It was absurd to just walk out of my job one day and never look back, without a plan in place. And so I didn’t—I said “no” to Jesus. He asked the impossible.
But I still thought I wanted to follow this Jesus. So I tried to do it on my own terms and in a way that made sense to me. I got rid of a lot of my extra things, but I held on to the big things as my own and kept all my savings. I determined that I would apply to seminary and wait till I had a plan in place before I quit my job. After all, isn’t being a “pastor” the sensible and practical way that people follow Jesus with their whole life? After being accepted to seminary I quit my engineering job, left California, and headed to St Louis for school. At seminary I fell in love with the academics and desired to be a professor. I determined I would follow Jesus from the hallowed halls of the ivory tower of academia. I would study, I would teach, I would write books. If I was studying and talking about Jesus all day, then surely that would be following him. So I prepared to apply to the top PhD programs across the country. I would follow Jesus in a way that made sense.
But on Dec 23, 2008, I stumbled across an article. Its words changed my life, for its words pointed me back to the call of Jesus I had said “no” to, years before: “People are not crucified for helping poor people. People are crucified for joining them.” If you simply give to the poor, the world will praise you for your generosity—but if you join the poor, rejecting all wealth and the very assumptions of the way the world lives, the world will turn on you, hate you, and even crucify you.
Like a light bulb jumping to life, the call of Jesus to all suddenly made sense to me: “If someone wants to come behind me then she must say ‘no’ to herself, take up her cross daily, and follow me. For whoever wants to rescue her life, will destroy it—but whoever destroys her life for my cause, will rescue it.” All my life I had been saying “yes” to myself and “no” to Jesus, I had been trying to rescue my life by amassing assets to provide for my future. And yet, here, Jesus was saying that if I was to be his follower then I must destroy my life for the sake of the “good news for the poor.”
That day in my cubicle in California I refused to truly destroy my life, I said “no” to Jesus. Jesus was asking me to completely destroy the American dream I was pursuing by selling all I had, giving to those in need, and following him in a whole new way of life. Jesus was trying to rescue me from the destructive life I was building for myself. Sure, I had been “helping” poor people, but Jesus wanted me to “join” them so that I might learn how to love and rely on my heavenly father for all things. What was impossible, was not me being transformed by god or me letting go of everything. What was impossible was me living under god’s rule while holding on to my stuff and my dreams. Camels cannot fit through the eye of a needle—the camels that carry our possessions must be left completely behind if we are to live under god’s rule.
And so that day in 2008, the direction of my life changed forever. Just like Peter who had said “no” to Jesus three times, I was given another chance. That day I began to learn how to truly say “yes” to Jesus and “no” to myself. I began a lifelong process that continues today of giving away everything I own and making myself “powerless”—no retirement, no emergency funds, no insurance, and the smallest income possible. I also joined with a group of fellow Christians, we moved into a poor neighborhood, and we pooled every resource we came across in order to care for and house our neighbors who were in need that very day. God’s spirit was doing what I thought was impossible: I, the stubborn, selfish, practical, and responsible man who had said “no” to Jesus, was being radically transformed, I was beginning to completely destroy the life I had made for myself, I was being made “powerless.” God was opening my fingers, helping me release my grip on my life. As always, Jesus was right, “The powerless in the sight of humanity are powerful in the sight of god.”
On this journey of learning to say “yes” to Jesus I have begun to discover the remarkable truth of Jesus’ words to Peter: “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has set free their house, spouse, brothers, parents, or children, for the cause of the rule of god, who is not receiving many times more in this season and, in the arriving era, sustainable life.” Jesus calls all his followers to join the poor and to become “powerless,” but in so doing our heavenly father provides us with more than we ever had in the first place—houses, family members of all sorts, and true, sustainable life. Like Jesus’ followers in the book of Acts we are called to stop “claiming any possessions as our own” while “sharing everything” so that there might be “no needy persons” among us. Under the rule of god there is no such thing as “private property,” for as the psalmist says, “the earth is the lord’s and everything in it.” Jesus assures us that if we trust his word, take the risk, sell all we have, give to the poor, and follow him, then we will have more than we will ever need in this age, and life in the age to come. For as the psalmist wrote, “those who are meek will inherit the earth.”
Jesus calls each of us this day to hear his word once again, inviting us to destroy our lives so that we might be rescued into true and abundant life. Jesus wants you to join him on a journey of loving your neighbors with everything you have and learning how to rely on your heavenly father, for all things. Jesus is calling you, “Sell everything you have and distribute it to the dirt-poor, for through this you will have a storage in the heavens. Then come, follow me.” Amen.