A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
September 1, 2019
Early this summer employees at a Little Cesar’s Pizza shop in Fargo, North Dakota, noticed something moving in the dumpster out back the store as they locked up for the night and walked to their cars. Cautiously, they walked to the dumpster together and found that a man was inside, digging around for something to eat. The employees helped the man out of the dumpster and gave him the left-over pizza that each had planned to take home with them. The night manager then called Jenny Stevens, the owner of the store, to let her know what the employees had found. The next day, as the manager arrived to work, she told a local paper in Fargo that she had expected to see something done about dumpster—a lock, a bar across the top, something to keep people from diving in. Instead what she found was a sign on the front door of the shop, which read, “To the person going through our trash for their next meal, you’re a human being and worth more than a meal from a dumpster. Please come in during operating hours for a couple of slices of hot pizza and a drink at no charge. No questions asked.”
Its been a few months now since that sign was put up. And every day, one or two people come in and are served some hot pizza and a drink. Initially, the employees figured it would mostly be homeless people, but they soon realized that that was assumption that they had no right to make. Sometimes it was a mother and father with their children; other times it was an elderly person. Each time someone comes in and asks for free pizza and a drink, no matter what they look like or old they are or how many there are, the staff’s instructions are quite clear: serve them.
Jenny Stevens and her late husband, Mike, have a history of being generous. There are certain rules that the store has to follow since it is a franchised restaurant, and one of those rules is that a pizza cannot be sold to a customer if it has been out of the oven for more than 30 minutes. The restaurant sells freshly baked pizzas all day long for $5 that they keep in a hot box, but sometimes they won’t sell as many as they make. In 2016, just a few years after opening the franchise, Jenny and Mike decided to give away those unsold pizzas. When the timer is up, the staff wrap and freeze the pizzas, and then later they are taken to one of three shelters in Fargo that serve children, the homeless, and families suffering through domestic violence. This simple act serves two purposes: it reduces food waste and it puts food in someone’s belly who might not otherwise have a warm meal. Jenny estimates that since 2016 they have given away 140,000+ pieces of pizza to their community.
Now, you might be wondering how one can run a successful business giving away so much of the product. Well, when the community found out about Jenny and Mike’s generosity, they immediately saw an increase in business. A local man even suggested having a donation box on the counter where customers could donate a slice or pay it forward for someone else. Jenny and Mike weren’t sure about this—they had made a commitment to generosity because they knew it was the right thing, not because they were looking for a good marketing campaign. But eventually they put out a donation box and about half of their customers each day donate to the effort. At the end of December of 2017, Mike passed away after battling leukemia. Some expected that Jenny would slow down, maybe even close the store to focus on raising their two girls. But she is still giving away free pizza and remaindering those at one of the lowest moments in life that they are worth more than a meal from the dumpster.
This is a story about mindset. When Jenny received the call from the night manager about the man in the dumpster, she had two choices. The first choice was to padlock the dumpster, run a bar across the top so that the flaps couldn’t be opened, or even lock the dumpster behind a fence. She could have instructed her staff to never give away free food because, as they say, there is no such thing as a free lunch. She could have gone so far as to install more lighting in the parking lot, security cameras, and signs that read, “No Loitering.” And like some councils and churches have done in major cities recently, Jenny could have installed anti-homeless security measures like spikes on the curbs and benches around the property and sprinklers that go off at random times during the night and day. But Jenny made another choice, the better of those available to her. She decided to extend hospitality and mercy to someone she had never met. Jenny had the right mindset, a mindset of compassion for someone on the down and out. Jenny knew that she had a lot of power and ability at her fingertips and she knew using just a little bit of it would make all the difference in the life of one of her fellow human beings. The mindset matters.
I’ve been thinking and praying a lot lately about what it means to be a follower of Jesus in 2019. It is more than an understatement to say that we live in a world far different than we could have imagined 5, 10, or 20 years ago. We had no idea then how much technology and the internet would change how we interact with one another or how it would connect the world in a way where time and distance don’t really matter. I had no idea even 10 years ago when I started my journey to being a pastor that I would minister in a world where truth is relative. Looking back, I think some of the signs where there, but things were so good that none of us noticed where we were headed. We didn’t see the hate coming, or the bigotry, or the racial and social divides, or the seeming impotency of the church to speak any meaning into it. If we did see it, I think we ignored it. And now we find ourselves in a time of great unrest, great unhappiness, great fear, and great misunderstanding. It is a time when following Jesus is really, really hard.
And so I’ve been thinking and praying about that and then I read stories like the one about Jenny Stevens and her Little Caesar’s Pizza shop and I’m reminded that having the right mindset is what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Will we chose to live in fear and doubt, constantly unhappy about everyone and everything? Will we give in to despair and shame and the dreadful allure of sin? Or will we recognize that we have the power and the ability to do a tremendous amount of good in the world, that we are created good? Will we then hold that power and ability back until someone comes along that we think deserves it, or will we use that power and ability to make something good come out of all the bad? We will we look for grace and good news and love, or will we wallow away in despair because there is so much wrong and things are not how they used to be? Will we choose a mindset of negativity and pessimism or will we choose to see each new day as a gift from God, filled to the brim with blessings to receive and blessings to share?
Mindset is on Jesus’ mind today. The setting is a sabbath meal in the home of a powerful religious leader in Jerusalem. Because it is the sabbath, we can imagine that there was an open bar, a tremendous buffet, and plenty of feasting and merry-making. As Jesus is settling in to visit, he notices that some of the guests are pushing their way through the crowd to sit in the places of honor. “No, no,” Jesus says, “When you are invited to a party, do not push through to get to the best seats. Someone more important than you might show up and you’ll be embarrassed when the host makes you move.”
These guests that Jesus goes after have arrived with the mindset that they are more important than anyone else and deserve the best seats in the house. This points to a much deeper and much more deadly problem—they think they are better than everyone else. This has led them to trample on other guests at the party on their climb to the top. There is no end to what someone is willing to do when they think they deserve something and no one else around them does. It’s a mindset about a party and seats at the table for now. But soon it turns into policies and laws that exclude and oppress and deny life. It is a sabbath dinner for now. But soon it turns into reserved pews in the synagogue and new rules about who can read or sing in church and who can or cannot take communion. Jesus warns about the guests being embarrassed now. But that warning looks ahead to the day when we all have to answer before God for the life we lived.
Jesus teaches those at the party about a new mindset. To be his followers, the guests must take on a much more gentle, more compassionate, more Kingdom-centric mindset. Jesus says, “Take the guestlist you made for your next party and add to it. Add the names of all those you think don’t deserve to come to your party—the poor, the sick, the blind, the lame, the crippled, the people that have hurt you, and the people you have hurt.” The strange thing about inviting these people, Jesus says, is that they have no chance of paying the host back for their hospitality. This is good because the host will be repaid beyond anything they could possibly hope for or imagine in the resurrection to new life. The mindset matters. The way Jesus’ followers look at the world matters. Because the way we look at the world, the way we understand our power and importance and abilities in relation to those of the people around us, dictates how we act. If we think we are better than everyone else, pushing our way to the front for the best seats, we’re going to put policies and rules in place that hurt and destroy. But when we remember that we are all created as one humanity in the goodness of God, and invite the least and lowly to the table, we will live in such a way that brings life to all people.
So maybe you’re wondering right now, like I am, about what it means to follow Jesus at this moment in time. Its about a mindset. A mindset that gives up any ideas that we’re better than anyone else and takes up compassion and grace and mercy. It is a mindset that looks out for the well-being of those around us, even and especially if they are people that we don’t really like, understand, or agree with. Following Jesus right now means doing what we can, with what we have, to make life a little bit better for our fellow human beings. Maybe that starts today in your own home with a partner or family member. Maybe it starts today with the people who live next door to you or work with you. Maybe it starts with someone you’re sharing this space with today. The mindset matters. And as we take on the mind of Jesus the fear and anxiety and pain and suffering and shame and all the sin—all of it melts away in his amazing grace.
Chose today how you will see the world around you, the people in it, and your place in the expanse of God’s creation. Chose the mind of Christ, the mindset of Jesus, and you will be truly free. Amen.