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Date:10/13/19

Series: The Season After Pentecost

Category: 2019 Sermons

Passage: Luke 17:11-19

Speaker: Nicole Trotter

Ten lepers. If anyone saw them coming, they would yell out UNCLEAN as a way of warning others. The ten call out to Jesus from a distance…

Jesus sends them to the priests to be healed. Jesus was either burned out that day or just delegating. 

Either way, all ten are healed. One turns back…. and throws himself at Jesus feet. The literal translation is to fall on one’s face. The healed man falls on his face and thanks Jesus. 

One turns back. At some point this one, had an impulse to turn back and he followed it. Maybe all ten had that impulse… to turn back in praise, with humility and gratitude, but only one follows through… 

And this one, we learn, in the very next sentence is a samaritan. If scripture came with sound affects we’d hear “dum dum dum dum….” 

A Samaritan. A leper and a Samaritan. Doubly disliked, doubly outcast. Luke goes out of his way to point this out- as does Jesus- when he says; 

“Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 

Being a foreigner and remembering that you were once a foreigner is at the very heart of the Jewish people’s fait. Commanded by God is this repeated phrase… “Remember that you were once foreigners in a strange land…remember what I, your God, did for you." 

This theme of remembering lives at the heart of Judaism and in this morning’s scripture it comes in the form of turning back, literally. One turns back. 

Remembering also lives at the heart of what we do at Table as I mentioned last week. When we come to the table and we hear those words…do this in remembrance of me…we’re called to remember everything God has done for us, continues to do for us, and will do again.

As we remember we enter into a new life, one that is changed by the very love we receive through Christ.

 ~~~~~~

I want to share a story. It’s long and it’s good. And it’s a perfect modern-day illustration of what this scripture is teaching. 

Four homeless men were killed on Saturday in Chinatown in NYC, their heads smashed while they slept by an attacker wielding a metal bar. Now in the spaces where the bodies once slept are filled with Candles, flowers and handwritten tributes that flow onto the sidewalk. But something else was left at the sites. Fresh boxes of hot pizza were stacked at each memorial. And with them, a note. “I wish with all my heart,” it read, “that I could have been there at that very moment to protect all of you guys.”

The pizzas and notes came from Hakki Akdeniz, a 39-year-old immigrant.

The author added, “you know me as the pizza guy.” Then he revealed something from his own past: “As a former homeless man, I know the struggle that all of you guys went through every day.”

Mr. Akdeniz is Kurdish, was raised in Turkey working in cafes making lahmacun, flattened dough topped with spiced meat, and he aspired to make its Western cousin, pizza, in the United States.

He arrived by bus in New York in 2001 with $240 in his pocket and a promise of a bed at a friend’s apartment. When the friend changed his mind, Mr. Akdeniz moved into a dingy motel on 42nd Street and watched his meager savings dribble away at $30 a night.

Broke, he spent a few nights huddled with his bags in Grand Central Terminal. Someone pointed him to the Bowery Mission, one of the city’s most well-known homeless shelters, in the heart of the city’s skid row.

“I stayed there for 96 nights,” Mr. Akdeniz said. He busied himself in the kitchen, chopping onions and washing dishes, and he looked for work making pizza. His English was poor. He noticed a woman at the mission reading a Turkish language newspaper, and she helped him find a listing for a job at a Mediterranean pizza shop in Hoboken, N.J.

He showed up in New Jersey in unwashed clothes. The owner was skeptical. “He thought I was so dirty, unclean,” recalled Mr. Akdeniz. Desperate, he asked, “Can I make a pizza?”

“I was shaking, so nervous,” he said. “It came out no good. I said, ‘Can I make another one?’”

After a few failed attempts, the owner hired him — to wash dishes. That night Mr. Akdeniz slept on a bench across from the restaurant, returning early the next day. The next night, he slept in the basement of the pizza shop’s building.

Later that week, the cook gave him a tip. There was a building in Sunnyside, Queens, where the super had an assistant who did odd jobs and lived rent-free in the basement. The assistant was looking for an assistant — same perks. “The boiler room, you can sleep in the corner,” Mr. Akdeniz was told.

A year later, he had saved enough to move into an apartment with a roommate. He got a new job in early 2003 washing dishes at a restaurant on Ninth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen. On St. Patrick’s Day, the regular pizza maker didn’t show up to work, and Mr. Akdeniz was promoted on the spot.

He spent five years there, improving his skills. In 2009, he found a tiny pizza shop in the Lower East Side that was for sale. He had saved up $40,000 by then, and the shop — just an oven with a counter in front of it — cost twice that, but the owner agreed to sell, setting up monthly payments.

Mr. Akdeniz immediately fell behind in his first month, then his second and third. The man he owed told him, “Pay me, or I’ll put you in the oven.” Little did the man know that, to save money, Mr. Akdeniz was already sleeping under that oven, locked inside the shop every night until another worker opened a padlocked gate the next day.

Then, a breakthrough. Mr. Akdeniz entered a pizza-making contest in 2010 at the Javits Center. To stand out, he threw and spun his pizza dough after setting it on fire. He won first place. 

He was featured in a cover article in PMQ Pizza Magazine, which gave him thousands of copies that he handed out outside schools in the neighborhood near his shop. The teenagers laughed and called him “Champ,” but they bought slices, too.

“It became just busy — busy, busy, busy,” he said.

He paid off the shop. He heard of another one for sale nearby, made an offer that was accepted. Now with two places, he figured he needed a brand name, and he thought of the nickname the teenagers had given him. He named his two shops Champion Pizza.

He bought a third place, then a fourth. He improved his ingredients, making his dough extra light and importing organic sauce from Naples. He bought a fifth place, then a sixth, stretching out to Soho, Union Square and Columbus Circle. His seventh, which opened last year, is near the building in Queens and his old corner in the basement.

Along the way, he became something of a pizza celebrity, known for his flashy acrobatics in tossing and twirling dough, flaming or otherwise, and for building giant pizzas. He has won international pizza-making competitions, and his Instagram account has 3.5 million followers. 

While building this small pizza empire, Mr. Akdeniz never forgot his time among the homeless. He passed out free slices to street people who came around asking. Eventually, he started a weekly food and clothing handout on a stretch of sidewalk on West 34th Street.

His outreach extended beyond pizza. He found a nearby barbershop that agreed to cut homeless men’s hair, and a gymnasium that was willing to let them use its showers. He paid both for their services. He also regularly distributed pizzas to the homeless in Chinatown and the Lower East Side, becoming known among them as the “pizza guy.”

Last weekend, he was having a meal with friends when he learned that four men had been bludgeoned to death in Chinatown and that the police believed the killer was another homeless man. Deeply shaken, he had to excuse himself.

“How could you?” he asked in the interview. He pointed to a man sleeping on the sidewalk nearby. “That guy over there, how could anyone kill him?”

On Wednesday, Mr. Akdeniz and one of his employees carried 16 small boxes of pizza to a waiting Uber, and placed them in the trunk, before making the short journey to 2 Bowery, where one of the victims was killed.

He placed several boxes on the ground next to a row of candles, removing the empty ones from his previous visits. A passing man pushing a shopping cart stopped, and Mr. Akdeniz handed him a pizza box.

In large letters, its cover read “Champion Pizza,” and below, in smaller print, “Made in New York With Love.”[1]

This man, this foreigner, once homeless in a foreign land, never forgot and remembering changes the way he lives.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Most of us have never been foreigners in a strange land, or homeless, or suffered leprosy. Most of us don’t know what it means to live in exile. And so we’re left with a challenge. We can hear a story like this or listen to scripture like this and think ‘well that’s nice… or we can let it inspire us to remember our own stories of struggle. There’s not one of us in here who has not experienced a time we thought we wouldn’t get through it, whatever it was. The more we turn back to remember, the more likely we are to feel gratitude so deep that we’re not moved to pay it forward.

There’s a question I ask many of you when life throws challenges your way

I’ll ask something like...Where is God in all of this? Or How is God showing up? Or do you feel as though God is showing up… 

In the story of the Pizza guy, I imagine God showed up in the Turkish woman who helped him read the paper, the guy who gave him his first break, the owner of the storefront who sold it to him for half the price, the teenagers who bought his pizza and gave him a nickname, and most importantly his own ability to persevere in the face of adversity. 

When we’re aware of all the ways God reassures us that we’re not alone, the more we nurture a sense of gratitude for a God who never abandons.

We may not have experienced what it means to have suffered leprosy or homelessness, but many know chemotherapy, know illness, know life-threatening situations including war or abuse, or depression and addiction. Some of us know what it means to self isolate or feel self-disgust. And some of you are in deep need right now. And the rest of us, who are in a pretty good place right now, because of  God’s grace, we should remember to turn back in gratitude by helping those who are in need now.

And the ones who are in need, your job is to accept the love of God that shows up in a myriad of healing ways, never abandons and embraces you no matter how far away you feel…and when the day comes that you’re fully healed, turn back, and give thanks by what you do next.

[1] NY Times, Michael Wilson, 2019