Sunday of the Living Dead

There have been several requests that I post a copy of this week's sermon, a sermon subject purchased at this year's auction: Zombies.

Universalist Unitarian Church of East Liberty
Clarklake, MI
August 15, 2010


Ringing of the Bell
Welcome and Announcements
Ringing of the Bell


Prelude: “Ase’s Death” from Peer Gynt ~ GRIEG

Opening Words: "Let Us Worship (with our eyes and ears and fingertips" ~ Kenneth Patton, #437 Singing the Living Tradition

Unison Chalice Lighting:

The torch still burns, and because it does,
There remains for all of us a chance
to light up the tomorrows and brighten the future.
…this is the challenge that makes life worthwhile.
~ Robert Kennedy, from We Light This Chalice, Rev. David A. Johnson

Hymn #1: “May Nothing Evil Cross This Door”


Story for All Ages: Selections from Shel Silverstein's A Light In The Attic
and Where The Sidewalk Ends

Singing the Children and Teachers to Classes

Joys and Sorrows

Silent Meditation or Prayer

Hymn #209: “O Come, You Longing Thirsty Souls” (Verses 1 & 2)


Reading: Selections from Zombie Haiku: Good Poetry For Your...Brains by Ryan Mecum

Hymn #137: “We Utter Our Cry” (Verses 1 & 2)
Sermon: “Sunday of the Living Dead” ~ Rev. Dr. Cynthia L. Landrum

Every year I have offered at our church auction, an auction item of a sermon topic, where the highest bidder gets to decide what I will preach on for one Sunday during the upcoming year. Usually I preach this sermon shortly before the next year’s auction, but because of my schedule with my sabbatical this year, I wanted to preach this sermon right away in this new church year.

Each time I have gotten a topic from you, the members, it has been something that has challenged me, something that I haven’t thought about preaching on before, and something that I’ve learned from in my research. Last year Jon Hart had me learning and preaching on the cosmology of the Native American tribes of Michigan, and Ann Green challenged me with the words of Miep Gies, who helped hide Anne Frank during the holocaust, about what it means to be a hero.

This year was an altogether different type of challenge, as a coalition of members banded together to give me a very unusual topic: Zombies. Many, many weeks when I type my subject of my sermon into google, even if it is not a particularly overtly religious topic, one of the first links that will come up is a sermon of a Unitarian Universalist colleague. I take it that we, as a group, have similar ideas about what would make a good sermon topic. But let me tell you, when you Google “Unitarian worship zombie,” you find that this is a topic that the web has no record of anyone in our movement ever preaching on before. Now vampires, that’s another story. Last year Matthew Johnson-Doyle, who I knew in seminary, gave a sermon titled, “Buffy, Sookie, and Who Wants to Live Forever.” Another colleague told me he recently did a “Vampire Vespers” service, complete with communion with the congregation saying in unison, “I vant to drink your blood.”

But zombies are a wholly different creature from vampires, less glamorous, less sexy, more menacing, and so there is a completely different message to be shared about them. In researching this subject, I watched the more recent zombie movies of Zombieland, and Shaun of the Dead, and the original 1967 zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead, and peruses zombie books such as The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead by Max Brooks, some zombie anthologies, and, of course, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance - Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem! by Seth Graheme-Smith and Jane Austen.  (As an aside, I learned that to like this book you have to be a person who likes Jane Austen and you also have to be a person who likes zombies, and the intersection of the two is a very, very small group of people.)

What I discovered is there are a lot of messages to be found in the zombies in our culture. And what I want to share with you is a few ways that zombies really are important to us.

Zombies in Religion

First: Zombies as an element of misunderstood religion.
What is more, if science ever gets to the bottom of Voodoo in Haiti and Africa, it will be found that some important medical secrets, still unknown to medical science, give it its power, rather than gestures of ceremony. ~ Zora Neale Hurston, author and anthropologist (Zombie.)
Zombies are commonly understood to be an element of Voodoo religion. The Voodoo religion is perhaps one of the most misunderstood religions in our culture, right up there with Wicca or Witchcraft—it’s commonly characterized as a Satanic religion, as devil-worshipping, and evil. We see this Voodoo in popular culture all the time, even in something like Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, where the evil “Shadow Man” character responsible for the froggy transformations is a practitioner of Voodoo. So it’s difficult to say anything about what zombies mean in Voodoo, since just about everything one can read on the subject is filtered through a biased lens by the time it gets into our mainstream culture. We saw a lot of misconceptions about Voodoo shared after the earthquake in Haiti, such as the quote from Pat Robertson who said that Haiti is cursed for making a pact with the devil.

So, as I said it’s difficult for me to say much about zombies in Voodoo without possibly spreading misconceptions. For example, in a book titled The Serpent and the Rainbow, the author, a physician, claimed that zombies were not just myth but scientific fact, resulting from the poisoning of individuals in order to give them brain damage and make them bend to the will of a master. This sounds like a scientific argument, on first glance. But his work has been greatly criticized and never corroborated. What I can say about zombies in Voodoo is that the word does seem to come from a West African word, Nzambi, which was the name of a God ("Voodoo Zombies"). In Voodoo, the zombie is the soul, removed from a person, not a person without a soul. Much more about this I cannot tell you, except to say to be wary of just about anything you read or hear about this vastly misunderstood religion that is a mix of Catholicism and African religions.

Of course, while the concept of zombie comes from Voodoo, people have combined the zombie idea with elements from other religions, as well. For example, one contemporary anthology of zombie short stories includes one titled “Lazarus,” where the Lazarus who Jesus brings back from the dead comes back a little, well, wrong.

Zombies as the “Other”

Second: Zombies as symbols of the “other”.
…zombies are a great metaphor. The great mass of humanity often comes across to us as unreasoningly hostile and driven to consumption, and the image of the zombie captures this perfectly." ~ David Barr Kirtley, author (Adams 2).
Zombies are the perfect metaphor for any group of people we see as other than ourselves, and that we fear in some way. We can see zombies as metaphors for minorities, for example. George A. Romero’s iconic movie, Night of the Living Dead, which created the genre of the zombie movie, does this with the issue of race. As Stephen Harper writes:
To many people, it seemed as though there might be a race war in America. Conservative, reactionary discussions of this possibility often focused — as they sometimes do today — on the possibility that "we" might soon be outnumbered by "them." The line in Night of the Living Dead "we don't know how many of them there are" highlights this racist concern with numbers and the fear of being outnumbered or "swamped."(Harper)
Zombies can also be seen as an AIDS metaphor. Ever since Night of the Living Dead, the image of a zombie as created by a witchdoctor has been replaced by the image of a zombie plague—zombies are created through some sort of initial virus, which then spreads to each person the zombie bites, creating new zombies that become a zombie plague. It’s easy to see the parallels that existed in the early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis, where people didn’t know what was causing AIDS, feared that it would become a plague that would kill humanity. Richard Bamattre writes:
In many films the monsters are set on fire by the humans; this not only makes for dynamic filmic imagery, but references the burning of bodies during epidemics, particularly the Bubonic Plague. Other issues of viral containment are explored; the entire nation of Great Britain is transformed into a quarantine in 28 Days Later as global authorities hope to contain the virus until the infected die out. The concept of quarantine is distinctive in that it attempts to physically separate the kingdoms: citizens of the kingdom of the sick are imprisoned within the terrain of the healthy and are subjected to surveillance and often experimentation of a scientific or medical origin.(Bamattre)
Writer Nina Auerbach has said, “Every age has the vampire it needs.” Arguably, the dominant monsters of every age reflect the dominant fears of the society. And so, of course, Ramero’s original zombies reflected issues of racism, later zombies reflected issues of AIDS, current zombies reflect issues of illegal immigration. These are our fears, and we take them, label them other, and make zombies of them so that we can defeat them. As Max Brooks said, “"It's safe to do something like a zombie walk -- it isn't so fun to do a swine flu walk," Brooks said, “If, at a party, you bring up how you'd survive a zombie attack, you'd be the life of the party. But if you say, 'What would you do if super-AIDS came to America?' you'd clear the room" (Gross).  Mark Dery writes:
The zombie is a polyvalent revenant, a bloating signifier that has given shape, alternately, to repressed memories of slavery’s horrors; white alienation from the darker Other; Cold War nightmares of mushroom clouds and megadeaths; the post-traumatic fallout of the AIDS pandemic; and free-floating anxieties about viral plagues and bioengineered outbreaks (as in 28 Days Later and Left 4 Dead, troubled dreams for an age of Avian flu and H1N1, when viruses leap the species barrier and spread, via jet travel, into global pandemics seemingly overnight.(Dery)
Zombie Civil Rights

The flip side of this is our third perspective: Zombies as civil rights metaphor. 
"Live" Free or Die.

Throughout history, great men and women have had to struggle against dictators and tyrants who wanted to keep them from living the way these men and women felt that they should.

Zombies might not be "alive" or "living" in the traditional sense, but does that mean that they're letting anybody mess with them or keep them down? Hell no. ~ The Zen of Zombie: Better Living Through the Undead, Scott Kenemore. (112)
A little while ago, when I was teaching English composition, a student of mine asked if for her argument paper she could write a paper on why zombies deserved equal rights to the living. I let her do it, and then another student jumped on board with the counter-argument. It was an interesting dialogue about the nature of civil rights, and how and why they get extended to the next group and the next group and the next group—to African-Americans, to women, to gays and lesbians, to immigrants, and to the undead.

It’s a humorous approach to zombies, but one that’s increasingly being taken as both a mockery of the left and of the right. For example, there’s Rising Up: The Story of the Zombie Rights Movement, and the movie American Zombie, both of which take a documentary-style approach to zombie rights.

What these examples tell us is that we use humor both to deflect arguments of real civil rights abuses, and also that we use humor to engage people in a real dialogue around civil rights.

Zombies and Human Death

Fourth: Zombies as our human fear of death personified.
The appeal of zombies is that it plays on everyone’s fear of death. A zombie represents death to the characters, and to readers and viewers. Death will always be in the back of their minds. It’s an unrelenting, unstoppable force, just like death. Zombies are out to get you; no matter how hard you try, eventually everyone has to succumb to it. It’s really an exploration of everyone’s natural fear of death. ~ Robert Kirkman, author of The Walking Dead Compendium Volume 1 ("What Do")
This is the obvious: the greatest, most ultimate fear of humanity is death. Our religions of the world are all about what is ultimate, but also what is after death—and we have a hundred answers for this greatest question—heaven, hell, purgatory, reincarnation, becoming one with the universe, becoming part of God, becoming dust. And so many religions and cultures give us examples of triumph over death, from the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, with Gilgamesh seeking eternal life, to figures who go down into the land of the dead and return such as the Sumerian goddess Inanna (or Ishtar), or the Greek stories of Orpheus trying to rescue Eurydice or Persephone who goes and returns each year to and from the land of the dead, to Odin in the Norse tales who dies and is resurrected, to Jesus of Nazareth triumphing over death both through performing miracles of resurrection and his own resurrection. Through our religions and our folk tales we are constantly telling tales of ways people triumph over death, or not.

Zombies are a portrayal of our worst fear about death—continued existence but without will, without consciousness. They are the inverse of other images of death, from angels to ghosts, where we retain consciousness, will, personality, and relationships and lose only our bodies. Zombies are our worst fears—no longer having our minds at our own control, falling apart physically, and yet remaining among us.

Through defeating zombies, we defeat death and celebrate life, giving a sense of our own immortality.

Zombie Invasions and War

A special metaphor that zombies represent is our fifth perspective: Zombie invasion as a metaphor for real-world wars.
…do we embrace these ideas as an indirect way of processing the horror that we feel at the reality of war and torture and death? The films that have covered the war in Iraq, its foundations and its consequences, have by and large been ignored by audiences, and yet during the height of our horror at the developments there, horror films that dealt with parallel subject matter in a setting and genre divorced from reality were hugely successful. ~ Christopher Golden, editor of The New Dead. (Golden x)
and a second quote:
"I will never forget that I am a member of the Living, fighting for freedom and life, responsible for my actions, and dedicated to the principle that keeps my country and earth alive. --Code of Conduct, from U.S. Army Zombie Combat Skills
Zombie movies are all about the battle, and they are popular at a time, like all times, when we have people out there fighting real wars, against real enemies. It is possible that the zombie movie is our way of dehumanizing our enemy, or, conversely, of making the real fights seem less real through our absorption of fake violence. When we watch a zombie movie or play a zombie video game, we can cheer at the decapitation of the enemy without guilt. We can rejoice in violence against an enemy that is unambiguously evil. Do we then extend that over to our real wars, and carry the dehumanization to the real enemies we fight?

Lest you worry too much, however, let me give you this quote from Seth Grahame-Smith, author of several books about zombies and other undead:
Anyone who's killed by a zombie ought to be ashamed of themselves. It's the equivalent of a fighter jet being blown out of the sky with a Nerf dart. Humans are superior to zombies in every imaginable way: We're faster, smarter, stronger, more adaptable, and better looking. And yet, in zombie movies, our so-called heroes hole themselves up in a highly vulnerable location at the first sight of a limper. They sit around scratching their heads and getting hysterical while an army of the dead amasses outside instead on simply planning a counterattack. (Graheme-Smith 108-109)
Our Zombies, Ourselves

Sixth: Zombies as ourselves.
Zombies don’t worry. Not about themselves. Not about others. Not about climate change. Nothing.
Zombies have “enough” of what they need in life (with the exception of living brains). Yet are, at the same time, “driven” with a passion and intensity that any CEO or motivational speaker would envy. Zombies don’t stop. Zombies don’t rest. And yet, zombies are at peace with this ceaselessness. You can be too. ~ From Scott Kenemore’s The Zen of Zombie: Better Living Through the Undead (Kenemore 2).
Zombie is a term used in our popular culture for someone who is just going through the motions. We’ll say, “He was a total zombie at work today.” Many people today have a sense that what they are doing from day to day lacks meaning, lacks importance. They’ve become zombies in everyday life.

In the film Shaun of the Dead, we see this at the beginning of the film.  The film opens with a series of people going through their everyday lives looking like zombies, shuffling off to work or staring at the TV with glassy eyes.  Over and over they make the point that we're all going through life like a zombie.

Zombies are a pop culture phenomenon that’s very popular right now, with such things as zombie walks, where people dress up like zombies and go ambling down a city street together. There’s one scheduled for September 4th in Lansing, if you’re interested in becoming a zombie yourself.

But even if you don’t enjoy acting like a zombie, or reading about them, or watching them at the movies, there’s something to be learned from the fact that this pop-culture phenomenon has become as large as it is. Zombies are metaphors for what scares us most—the other in society, the wars we fight, the ennui we all face, the finality of death.

Here in our church, in our faith, I discovered, we preach a very un-zombie-like message: we talk about the sanctity of life, the purpose and meaning to be found in living life deeply—sucking all the marrow out of life, as Thoreau put it, rather than sucking the marrow of death as zombies do. When I read through our hymnal, I found that what we celebrate is life, life, life, and freedom, freedom of thought, freedom of action, and hope for the future no matter what the fallen state of the world may be.

In some of the most popular zombie movies the zombies have destroyed everyone in the end, or, like in Romero’s classic work, the people have destroyed each other. Here in Unitarian Universalism, we hold out hope that in the world such as it is, or in a zombie apocalypse, the truest side of human nature will prove to be the best side of ourselves, and that hope for life and future will illumine our path through all our tomorrows.

May it be so.

Gifts of the Congregation: “Trio”


Hymn #324: “Where My Free Spirit Onward Leads”


It is written in Deuteronomy:
I call heaven and earth to witness today
That I have set before you life and death,
Blessings and curses.
Choose life, so that you and your descendents may live.
~ STLT #707, adapted

Take courage friends.
The way is often hard, the path is never clear,
And the stakes are very high.
Take courage.
For deep down, there is another truth:
You are not alone.
~ Wayne B. Arnason, #698 STLT

Unison Chalice Extinguishing

Unison Closing Song 

Works Cited

Adams, John Joseph. Introduction. The Living Dead. San Francisco: Night Shade, 2008. Print.

Bamattre, Richard. "Epidemic of the Living Dead - Zombies as Metaphor." Scribd. 29 Apr. 2010. Web. 14 Aug. 2010.
Dery, Mark. "Dead Man Walking: What Do Zombies Mean?" True/Slant. 17 Mar. 2010. Web. 15 Aug. 2010.

Golden, Christopher. Introduction. The New Dead: A Zombie Anthology. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2010. Print.

Grahame-Smith, Seth. How to Survive a Horror Movie: All the Skills to Dodge the Kills. Philadelphia: Quirk, 2007. Print.
Gross, Doug. "Why We Love Those Rotting, Hungry, Putrid Zombies " 2 Oct. 2009. Web. 15 Aug. 2010.

Harper, Stephen. "Bright Lights Film Journal: Night of the Living Dead." Bright Lights Film Journal: August 2010, Issue 69. Nov. 2005. Web. 14 Aug. 2010.

Johnson-Doyle, Matthew. "Buffy, Sookie, and Who Wants to Live Forever." The Unitarian Universalist Church, Rockford, IL. 20 Sept. 2009. Web. 14 Aug. 2010.

Kenemore, Scott. The Zen of Zombie: Better Living Through the Undead (Zen of Zombie Series). New York: Skyhorse Pub., 2007. Print.

Louison, Cole. U.S. Army Zombie Combat Skills. Guilford, CT: Lyons, 2009. Print.

Mecum, Ryan. Zombie Haiku: Good Poetry For Your...Brains. Cincinnati, OH: HOW, 2008. Print.

Rojas, Carlos. "Our Embrace of Vampires Reflects the Needs of an Age." The Herald-Sun. Web. 14 Aug. 2010.

"Voodoo Zombies." Web. 14 Aug. 2010.

"What Do Zombies Represent?" Ragnarfan's Blog. 2 Aug. 2010. Web. 14 Aug. 2010.

"Zombie." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 14 Aug. 2010.


Anonymous said…
This is a wonderful sermon, and I'm sorry I don't live in Michigan. Thank you.
Wendy said…
I'm a U.U. in Livermore, CA, and I adored this sermon!

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