Thursday, June 30, 2016

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Reading: Yertyl the Turtle, by Dr. Seuss

On the far-away island of Sala-ma-Sond,
Yertle the Turtle was king of the pond.
A nice little pond. It was clean. It was neat.
The water was warm. There was plenty to eat.
The turtles had everything turtles might need.
And they were all happy. Quite happy indeed.

They were… until Yertle, the king of them all,
Decided the kingdom he ruled was too small.
“I’m ruler”, said Yertle, “of all that I see.
But I don’t see enough. That’s the trouble with me.
With this stone for a throne, I look down on my pond
But I cannot look down on the places beyond.
This throne that I sit on is too, too low down.
It ought to be higher!” he said with a frown.
“If I could sit high, how much greater I’d be!
What a king! I’d be ruler of all that I see!”

So Yertle the Turtle King, lifted his hand
And Yertle, the Turtle King, gave a command.
He ordered nine turtles to swim to his stone
And, using these turtles, he built a new throne.
He made each turtle stand on another one’s back
And he piled them all up in a nine-turtle stack.
And then Yertle climbed up. He sat down on the pile.
What a wonderful view! He could see ‘most a mile!

“All mine!” Yertle cried. “Oh, the things I now rule!
I’m the king of a cow! And I’m the king of a mule!
I’m the king of a house! And, what’s more, beyond that
I’m the king of a blueberry bush and a cat!
I’m Yertle the Turtle! Oh, marvelous me!
For I am the ruler of all that I see!”

And all through the morning, he sat up there high
Saying over and over, “A great king am I!”
Until ‘long about noon. Then he heard a faint sigh.
“What’s that?” snapped the king ,and he looked down the stack.
And he saw, at the bottom, a turtle named Mack.
Just a part of his throne. And this plain little turtle
Looked up and he said, “Beg your pardon, King Yertle.
I’ve pains in my back and my shoulders and knees.
How long must we stand here, Your Majesty, please?”

“SILENCE!” the King of the Turtles barked back.
“I’m king, and you’re only a turtle named Mack.”

“You stay in your place while I sit here and rule.
I’m the king of a cow! And I’m the king of a mule!
I’m the king of a house! And a bush! And a cat!
But that isn’t all. I’ll do better than that!
My throne shall be higher!” his royal voice thundered,
“So pile up more turtles! I want ’bout two hundred!”

“Turtles! More turtles!” he bellowed and brayed.
And the turtles ‘way down in the pond were afraid.
They trembled. They shook. But they came. They obeyed.
From all over the pond, they came swimming by dozens.
Whole families of turtles, with uncles and cousins.
And all of them stepped on the head of poor Mack.
One after another, they climbed up the stack.

Then Yertle the Turtle was perched up so high,
He could see forty miles from his throne in the sky!
“Hooray!” shouted Yertle. “I’m the king of the trees!
I’m king of the birds! And I’m king of the bees!
I’m king of the butterflies! King of the air!
Ah, me! What a throne! What a wonderful chair!
I’m Yertle the Turtle! Oh, marvelous me!
For I am the ruler of all that I see!”

Then again, from below, in the great heavy stack,
Came a groan from that plain little turtle named Mack.
“Your Majesty, please… I don’t like to complain,
But down here below, we are feeling great pain.
I know, up on top you are seeing great sights,
But down here at the bottom we, too, should have rights.
We turtles can’t stand it. Our shells will all crack!
Besides, we need food. We are starving!” groaned Mack.

“You hush up your mouth!” howled the mighty King Yertle.
“You’ve no right to talk to the world’s highest turtle.
I rule from the clouds! Over land! Over sea!
There’s nothing, no, NOTHING, that’s higher than me!”

But, while he was shouting, he saw with surprise
That the moon of the evening was starting to rise
Up over his head in the darkening skies.
“What’s THAT?” snorted Yertle. “Say, what IS that thing
That dares to be higher than Yertle the King?
I shall not allow it! I’ll go higher still!
I’ll build my throne higher! I can and I will!
I’ll call some more turtles. I’ll stack ‘em to heaven!
I need ’bout five thousand, six hundred and seven!”

But, as Yertle, the Turtle King, lifted his hand
And started to order and give the command,
That plain little turtle below in the stack,
That plain little turtle whose name was just Mack,
Decided he’d taken enough. And he had.
And that plain little lad got a bit mad.
And that plain little Mack did a plain little thing.
He burped!
And his burp shook the throne of the king!

And Yertle the Turtle, the king of the trees,
The king of the air and the birds and the bees,
The king of a house and a cow and a mule…
Well, that was the end of the Turtle King’s rule!
For Yertle, the King of all Sala-ma-Sond,
Fell off his high throne and fell Plunk! in the pond!

And today the great Yertle, that Marvelous he,
Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see.
And the turtles, of course… all the turtles are free
As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.


You are as aware as I am of the state of morals in this country. There is not need for a litany of the sad state of lying, cheating, and casual disregard for the welfare of others that is pervading our society. Poor little Mack at the bottom of the pile of turtles is indeed hurting. But here, in the fall of 2011, little Mack has not just burped, he has organized a whole movement – and it’s called Occupy Wall Street. The abused, the ignored and the disposable of our society are speaking up.

Where do our morals come from? Some of them may come in the form of our instincts and human behaviors that promote community and family togetherness and therefore survival of the species. Some of them we pick up from our parents. Some we learn from our own experience and some we learn from reading and other sources, including our religious education.

If there is a moral deficit in our country, one or more of these sources of our moral principles must be missing or diminished in some way. I don’t think our brains are any less equipped at birth. And rather than get into any suggestion that parents are somehow less equipped these days to pass on the important moral lessons, (that seems somehow laden with politically incorrect pitfalls), let’s look instead at how reading and other sources might play a role in how a society begins to exhibit a change in its moral aptitude.

You probably figured out why I used a Dr. Seuss story for my reading this morning. And why we lit our Chalice for our Unitarian Universalist seven principles. Both of these are sources of the knowledge we store in our brains that gets called up when moral questions arise in our lives. I would count My Three Sons and Leave it to Beaver, and some of the other TV shows I watched as a kid, among the sources of my own morality. Maybe even Mr. Ed. Seems to me, that in comparison to many of the shows available to our children today, the shows of yesteryear illustrated many more positive moral lessons. I admit I may be under-informed on the quality of current television.

And, when we were little, reading The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham, few thoughts of moral lessons were going through our minds. But they were being stored up, nonetheless. I guess I was particularly fond of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. I really liked the fact that the Whos of Whoville celebrated the holiday anyway, even without their presents or their “roast beast,” and that the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes that day. It made me happy to think someone could change like that.

My daughter learned to read with Green Eggs and Ham. Subversively she was learning to try new things and that change can be good. Sneaky that Dr. Seuss.

“I’m subversive as hell!” said Dr. Suess of himself, referring to the radical and revolutionary ideas that were imbedded in the stories he wrote for children.

“Now the Star-Belly Sneeches/Had bellies with stars./The Plain-Belly Sneetches/Had none upon thars. (The Sneetches, 1961)

“A person’s a person no matter how small.” (Horton Hears a Who, 1954)

“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.” (The Lorax, 1971)

Remember The Butter Battle Book? Two rival factions take up an arms race and are poised to destroy each other totally over the fact that one side ate their bread butter side up and the other butter side down.

I suggest a nation-wide Dr. Seuss book read. One a week, with discussion groups. For children, and adults.

The moral deficit to which I refer in this sermon is of course much more serious than could be solved by reading more of The Cat in the Hat. (whose message by the way is about objecting to authority) The moral deficit in our society is a huge and discouraging and sad subject. Too much for one short sermon, for sure, but nevertheless something worth mentioning out loud. How often do you, like I do, find yourself saying “What is happening to our sense of right and wrong?” How often do you, like I, want to say to our country’s nay-sayers (for example about health care) “But it’s the right thing to do.”

The moral thing to do usually seems clear to me.

I have never in my life cheated on a test and would never have even thought to do so. Yet many students these days apparently consider cheating sort of a normal, and expected, thing. The statistics are outrageously alarming. Falsehoods on resumes are also on the rise. Do we do anything we can to get ahead?

Why is it our politicians can so easily lie to us and to each other? They lie, I guess, to keep us happy so we’ll vote for them, but what happens to the truth in the process? I think that’s why the environment is a big loser in the political world – talking about the frightening scenarios of global warming and peak oil does not win votes. Talking honestly about the necessity of raising taxes doesn’t either.

A joke I heard: What do dishonest politicians and plastic bags have in common? They both drive us crazy and they will both be with us forever.

Why is it people in court, supposedly under oath, sometimes obviously lie and are often coached to do so by their lawyers? We see examples of this all the time on TV – in the real news and in fictitious shows, too.

It’s no wonder we Unitarian Universalists (and others) are so focused on bringing Justice, Equity and Compassion to the world – because real Justice, Equity and Compassion are in increasingly short order.

Why is it when I tried to research the subject of moral deficit I found two loud and distinctly different points of view depending on whether it was a liberal or a conservative speaking? Morality is clearly an opinion from the position of the person speaking, not a set of natural or obvious laws that everyone understands in the same way.

We, for example, might think that there is a moral deficit involved in the cutting of federal funding for those in the greatest need. Others clearly think that the moral thing to do is cut spending, no matter what the cost to actual people, in order that the budget is balanced so that future generations have a chance at financial security. I can see truth in both these positions. But to let people starve or not get the medical attention they need? While at the same time there are people in our country with more money than they or the next seven generations of their offspring could ever spend in all their lifetimes? And while at the same time more money than is needed to fix a whole lot of our problems is being spent on very sad wars and other posturing.

I had to look up the definition of a socialist, to see if that was truly a bad thing to identify myself with, at least in part. It certainly carries with it a lot of bad baggage. Personally I think I defy absolute definition in any direction. But I may be leaning.

There are those who believe that the goodness of humanity will prevail and all the peoples of the Earth will eventually live together in peace and generosity. I would say Paul Tillich, the author of my Call to Worthship this morning, was of that philosophy. [Morality] “is the power of man’s being, given to him by nature, which he shall actualize in space and time. His true being shall become his actual being – this is the moral imperative.” (“Moral Choice in the Making,” by Khoren Arisian, in The Life of Choice: Some Liberal Religious Perspectives on Morality, Clark Kucheman, ed., p. 48)

And so was Unitarian Theodore Parker who wrote the words often used by and quoted as Martin Luther King Jr’s: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”

And then there are those in the world and in our country who see humanity as intrinsically evil. With original sin. Born to be bad.

Unitarian Universalists are accused, and perhaps rightly so, of ignoring the human potential for evil that exists in each and every one of us. We know it does. It’s sort of a door in our house that we never want to open because we don’t want to have to acknowledge what lies within.

So what is a person to do? Despair of the human condition? “Anticipate disaster at every turn?” (p. 49) Or believe, as Darwin did, that the relationship of moral progress over time is linear – “that virtue would ultimately triumph.” (Khoren Arisian, p. 48) Onward and upward forever.

Well, you know what I am going to say – we can do neither, by itself, realistically. The truth is somewhere in between. And because this is the case, we should not only bank on that, we should make plans for that duality of our human propensities. Our children need, as we have needed, as much preparation for the realities of life as we can give them.

What can we give them? And ourselves as well? As UUs we can offer the seven principles I read for our Chalice Lighting this morning. As parents and grandparents we can offer more Dr. Seuss stories. More moral learning along with all the reading and math skills found in so many books for children these days.

And we can lead our children and each other by our practiced example, with practice being the key word. As Sharon Welch writes in her book Sweet Dreams in America: Making Ethics and Spirituality Work, “Virtue has to be practiced, built up, cultivated. There is, then, a direct relationship between the choices of daily life and what choices we can make in the public sphere. If we cannot muster the strength or insight to address creatively racist or sexist remarks by friends and family, their personal habits of ignoring the rights of others, we cannot expect to have the courage and insight to respond creatively to structural problems [in our larger society.]” (p. 86)

In addition, morality is complicated by the particularities of each situation. Sidney Mead said: “Every moral issue demands a reconsideration of one’s essential character from a different perspective.” (Arisian, in Kucheman, p. 56)

Right here, in this congregation, is one place we learn to practice the morality we would take with us into our families, our lives, our communities, our world.

In his new book, Theology Ablaze, UU minister Tom Owen-Towle writes, in his chapter on evil:

As Unitarian Universalists, we will continue to do what we can and must in the ongoing struggle with evil. Struggle is central to fanning our flame. We won’t end evil, but we can diminish our participation in it. We can confess when and where we’re involved in evil – socially, economically, politically, spiritually, and environmentally – and alter our behavior to support mercy, justice, sustainability, and peace.

A turning point of spiritual growth arrives when we make sufficient peace with our wild and wooly natures, when we recognize as UU lay author Peter Fleck puts it “the blessings of imperfection.”

I remember asking a religious education class of fifth graders the following question: “If all the good people in the world were red, and all the bad people were green, what color would you be?” And 10-year-old Jeannie thought mightily for a moment, then her face brightened, and she replied: Reverend Tom, I’d be streaky and so would you! (p. 78)

If there is a moral deficit in our American society today, let us not sit around and bemoan the situation, let us take our streaky selves and do what we can. Just as peace begins at home and in our own hearts, so, it seems, does morality.

Personally, I have decided that I will make a more decided effort to read the books to my grandson that give the moral messages I would like him to take with him into our complicated world. And I will talk to both my grandchildren about what I believe to be right and wrong.

Let’s remember Little Mack, at the bottom of the stack.

And the turtles, of course… all the turtles are free
As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.

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