Human beings seem to look for loopholes just about everywhere.
From taxes to tithes and everything in between, if there’s a shortcut or a way out, we’ll find it. We spend a great deal of time looking for the best deal, the quickest route, or the easiest path. Sometimes we become so fixated on the loophole, we end up spending MORE time, MORE effort, and MORE energy than if we just did it the way it was supposed to be done. Take dieting for example. Exactly how many diets ARE there? Probably as many as there are people. Maybe more. We all have heard of the South Beach Diet and the Adkins Low-Carb Diet, but have you heard of the Apple Cider Vinegar Diet where you’re supposed to take 3 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar before each meal? What about the Shangri-La Diet which lowers your theoretical “set point” by eating bland foods and drinking olive oil an hour before you sit down to eat? You’ve probably heard about the Master Cleanse which is big right now with supporters like Beyonce. It relies on laxatives, lemon juice, and cayenne pepper to “cleanse” the body. Even though most nutritionists believe it isn’t necessary to follow some special diet to cleanse your body, but simply eat better and drink water. Even more weird is the Cotton Ball Diet. Reportedly some models and dancers would eat cotton balls to make themselves feel full even though it’s incredibly unsafe. Back in the 1920’s people ingested tapeworms with the theory that the tapeworms would help eat some of that excess food we take in. Again, incredibly unsafe. And pretty gross, too. Then there is the Breatharian movement which is a mix between dieting and religion. Breatharians believe that we have this food thing all wrong and we don’t really need food. They believe that if we were to purify ourselves we can live off sunlight alone. Seriously. People have died following this way of life. The thought behind breatharian thinking is if plants can do it why not people? Of course they are missing the point that 1.) plants are not people and 2.) plants get nourishment from the earth. If we start growing roots maybe these people will have something. All of these crazy diets designed to find a “better way” of losing weight. But these are short-term fixes for a long-term problem with a simple solution. Change your lifestyle. Eat real food. Exercise more. Eat less junk. But we would rather drink apple cider vinegar than change our lifestyle.
A simple solution, but not an easy one for human beings to do.
This constant search for life loopholes, to avoid having to change our lifestyle, isn’t constrained to just weight loss. It occurs in nearly every aspect of our lives. We get mad at the government when public funding gets cut for the things we believe in like schools, health care, national defense and the arts, but more than 8 in 10 of us believe we should do everything within the law NOT to pay taxes. We wonder why more and more churches are closing, but barely 5% of us tithe let alone give more than 10% of our income to the church. We argue about whether we should tithe on the gross or the net, but the truth is we aren’t close to tithing on either one so it really doesn’t matter. We are shocked and saddened by the disaster in Bangladesh where the garment factory literally collapsed and took the lives of over 1,100 people and injured 2,500 more, but we still shop in stores that make their clothes there because it’s cheaper, but that cheaper product comes with a price tag. It may not be one you feel in your pocket book, but sometimes the price is much, much higher. For 1,100 people in Bangladesh, the cost was their lives.
Simply put, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
You can’t have your cake and eat it too. For us to do what’s right means making the right choices and sometimes those choices have unappealing consequences. Choosing to lose weight means eating less sweets and having to work your body harder. Choosing to give to God means there’s less money for us to spend on Starbucks or summer vacations. Choosing to be more socially conscious about what we buy and who we buy it from means spending more money on products that could have cost us less. But it’s all a matter of perspective and priorities isn’t it? It’s all a matter of perspective and priorities. Are we thinking about how our choices impact the world around us or are we simply thinking about ourselves? The question we should ask is not “What will this cost me?” but instead ask the question, “What does it cost the people AROUND me?” The question we should ask is not “What will this cost me?” but instead, “What does it cost the people AROUND me?” What are some of the unintended consequences when we fail to do what’s right and choose instead what’s comfortable or makes us feel good? Daniel had this same problem that we face everyday of our lives. If you have a Bible or Bible app on your phone, please go to the Old Testament book on Daniel, chapter 1, verses 8-17. Daniel 1:8-17. Daniel was born Hebrew and was apparently of noble birth (see Daniel 1:3). When the Babylonians conquered the Hebrew people, their king ordered young Israelite men who were of noble birth and free from defect to enter into service in the courts. As compensation, they were given training and food from the King’s table, which was meant as an honor and as a reward. The Babylonian king hoped to indoctrinate these new recruits into his service and turn them away from their culture and their faith. But Daniel and his friends refused. The king could train them, give them new names and new identities, but he could not take away what they believed in. And that’s where we pick up in the story today.
But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way. Now God had caused the official to show favor and compassion to Daniel, but the official told Daniel, “I am afraid of my lord the king, who has assigned your food and drink. Why should he see you looking worse than the other young men your age? The kind would then have my head because of you.”
Daniel then said to the guard whom the chief official had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, “Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see.” So he agreed to this and tested them for ten days.
At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food. So the guard took away their choice food and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables instead.
To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds.
Daniel chose the hard path.
His priority was God and his perspective was focused on what it would mean to God if he were to abandon his faith. It’s tempting to think that God would be understanding given the circumstances. I mean Daniel and his friends didn’t voluntarily go into service in the King’s Court. They were captured, basically prisoners of war. What choice did they have? Most of us would think that it would seem foolish for Daniel to sacrifice his life over the type of food he ate. We talk often about what’s important to God is the heart we have for him, not the food we eat or the rituals we perform. But for Daniel, acquiescing to the king’s way of doing things would separate him from the God he loved. It wasn’t about the food, but about his relationship with God, and although the king wasn’t asking Daniel and his friends to outright deny God, Daniel knew that if he started letting his faith slip away, eventually there would be nothing left of it. Daniel resolved not to go down that route. He had faith that God would prove his choice to be the correct one, and in the end he was right. God gave him the strength he needed and he stayed true to his faith. Do we have this kind of faith in God? What are we willing to sacrifice to do the right thing?
It’s easy to separate ourselves from the world around us.
People tend to be self-centered and have a narrow view of the world. But if we open our eyes, we can see the truth that our choices and our lifestyle have consequences. We are equally responsible for some of the tragedies in the world because we didn’t step forward to take action. Or we took action that was self-serving instead of selfless and it cost someone else. Have you ever been given extra money at the cash register and even if only for a moment struggled with if you should give it back? After all, when they make a mistake they don’t come running after you to give you the money back. Do you have “rules” for when you should give it back? Is anything under $10 fair game? Because when those things happen someone pays. Maybe the employee pays out of their pocket. Maybe it means they get a bad review and get fired. Maybe it becomes reflected in your costs at the store. Just because WE don’t always pay directly for those consequences, doesn’t mean there aren’t any. We mourn and fret and send money for disaster relief when tragedy occurs, but what if we were proactive instead or reactive? What if we were proactive instead of reactive? What if we took the time to consciously think about the consequences of our actions beyond how they affect us? Could we avoid disasters like the one in Bangladesh? I believe we can. I see so many injustices in the world, simply because people did what was self-serving instead of what was right. As our heart for others becomes stronger so does our relationship with God. After all, God told us that more than anything we should love one another. We need to do what’s right, not what’s expedient or makes us feel good. We need to do what’s right, not what’s expedient or makes us feel good.
I feel passionate about this because it’s something I struggle with all the time.
And I see so many people I love and care about struggle with it too. I don’t always make the right choices. I don’t always do what needs to be done. And it frustrates me that I know better and still can’t manage to fight my own inner demons. Like with weight loss. I don’t do any of these crazy diets we talked about earlier, but I also don’t do enough of what needs to be done. When I have that one more donut or that one extra slice of cake I tell myself I deserve it. It’s been a hard day or I just need the sugar rush. But what are the costs? It’s not just my life that’s affected, but Cassie’s and Eve’s and Emma’s and everyone who matters to me. What am I saying to them? That I care more about a Twinkie than my family and friends? What haunts me is something Dr. Phil said to me when we visited with him in New York. I was fortunate enough to be selected to be on the Katie Couric special about weight loss right when Dr. Phil’s book came out. There were about eight of us and we went up in front of Dr. Phil with our own personal challenges with losing weight. It was surreal. Cassie was pregnant with Emma but not so far that she couldn’t travel and Dr. Phil said to me, “You’re about to have a baby. Would you die for your child?” Of course I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Then LIVE for them.” We can all do better with the choices we make. We need to learn to be more responsible about what we do and how we do it. I want to challenge you the next time you’re tempted to take a shortcut, to circumvent the system, or to take the easy way out, ask yourself not “What’s in it for me?” Ask yourself instead “What’s in it for those around me?” And THEN make your choice. When we all start caring for one another, we will all be that much closer to God. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Note about the sermon: I began writing this sermon as a reaction to Apple Computers using tax loopholes to avoid paying billions a year in taxes. I kept thinking how much good that would do for the country with our deficit and with what that money could be used for. Then I was thinking about what happened in Bangladesh and what a terrible, AVOIDABLE tragedy that is. It didn’t take a brain surgeon to realize the unsafe conditions those workers were in. But nobody cared enough to stop it. Then I thought about me…and realized while I haven’t killed anybody because of my negligence and certainly have always paid my taxes, I am not free of this habit of looking for loopholes. I think we’ll find if we’re honest with ourselves that we tend to be like this, but we shouldn’t. We need to challenge ourselves to be better – for our relationship with God and with one another.
 Interview on “juicing” on KCRW’s Good Food with Evan Kleiman (4/26/2013).