Night of the Living Church

By Alex Haider-Winnett

Delivered at First Unitarian Church of Oakland

On July 28th, 2013

Friends, it is a great honor and privilege to be here to share worship with you today. After two years of serving this community in planning and implementing worship, I am thankful for this opportunity to preach here in this hallowed space. Here, where so many great people have shared their thoughts. It is a blessing. Thank you.

If you are like me, you come home from church and check-in with a loved one or friend about the service. You may say that the it was nice but you may struggle for a moment on how to accurately and eloquently describe the ideas expressed during the service. Well, I will make it easy for you. Today’s sermon is about stories. The stories we tell matter. Also, zombies. We will be talking about zombies today.

One of my most favorite movies in recent history is actually not about zombies. It is a documentary by Werner Herzog called Cave of Forgotten Dreams. It follows a group of archeologists, geologists, and paleontologists as they explore and decipher the Chauvet cave in Southern France. This cave is a significant find for having the oldest known cave paintings in human history. Dating back 32,000 years ago, these paintings provide an important insight to the dawn of humanity. The cave’s walls are covered with abstract patterns as well as figurative drawings of local animals. The paintings are amazing. They depict mammoths, lions, camels and wooly rhinos in stunning detail with a complex understanding of anatomy, motion, and perspective.

I won’t go on to tell you how because I think it is much better to see the movie for yourself, but the anthropologists have figured out that this site was used for ritual purposes. This cave is a prehistoric religious site. We know that in this cave, stories were told and rituals were performed. The essence of worship is found in the cave. And it draws a direct line from what was being done 32,000 years ago to what we are doing this very moment. At one point in the film, Herzog asks an anthropologist if the Chauvet cave is the dawn of humanity as we know it. Without a doubt the anthropologist believes this evidence of early religiosity is one of the earliest signs of humanity.

The stories we tell matter.

Of course the stories from that cave are lost to history. We have no idea what those drawings meant or which rituals were performed there. But there are lots of stories we do know. Students of anthropology, sociology, and philosophy will most likely be familiar with the works of Jung, Campbell and Armstrong. These three point to deep, universal elements that draw our stories together into a unifying human experience.

We have origin stories. Stories of how the universe, the world and living things have come to be.

We also have destruction stories. Stories of how creation will come to an end.

Between creation and destruction, we have the stories of everyday life; heroes and monsters, and stories of morality. All of these stories help to create meaning in a world that is vast, confusing and even frightening. By telling these stories we get to explore deep theological questions about the nature of the spirit, humanity and society. To have origins, to have influential leaders, and even comfort in knowing how the world may end all help us to create certainty.

These stories undeniably bind humanity together into a single world history. The stories we tell matter.

“But, Alex” some of you may be saying now, “those are ancient stories told by ancient people. We know those stories to be not true. We have science and reason to find why things *really* happen.” And you would be right. Sort of. We do have science and reason but these stories are still important in our lives. They can still be a source of inspiration in a brutal world when we look beyond the details and see the deeper, more universal themes below. Plus, even with science and reason, what we know of the universe is still mysterious. Take for instance the ultimate question-How did the universe come to exist? We have the Big Bang theory. All of the universe has been created through the cooling and condensing of a gigantic explosion that began billions of years ago. And as far as we call tell through physics, that it is correct. And yet, that story is still as amazing and as mysterious as any ancient creation story.

Contemporary theologian, Karen Armstrong writes about what makes a story “true.” For her, it does not matter if a story is factual as long as it helps us make meaning. Facts are a construct of modernity and belong firmly in the world of science. But myth, legend and stories are concerned with the greater truths of making meaning. Rather than asking if a story actually happened, we should be asking “does this story help us make meaning of the world we experience?” More importantly, I believe Armstrong would ask, “Does this story give us greater compassion and strength to make the world a better place?” The stories that do so are, arguably, the truest stories of all--whether or not they are factual.

And the very fact that we continue to write fiction shows that in our age of reason stories still matter. Harry Potter, Star Trek, and even Twilight are all fantasy stories we tell that are extremely popular for what they tell us about ourselves. They all take ancient stories and adapt them for our modern questions. Which brings finally brings us to zombies.

As I am sure you are all aware, the zombie is a fictional creature that represents the dead resurrected. In zombie stories, the dead tend to be hollow shells of humans; stripped of all thinking and personality, they are a walking/crawling mass that mindlessly roams the earth consuming all in their way. It is not too uncommon to hear people critically call modern culture “zombie-like” as we travel through our daily routines consuming food and resources without thought. The zombie image is appealing as allegory because the zombie itself is a blank slate on which the storyteller can put their own spin. Over the past century, the zombie trope has changed and altered with the times.

The term “Zombi” originates from West Africa. It referred to someone who was in the healing trance of a medicine man. It came over to the New World with the slave trade in the 17th century and became part of the Caribbean Creole religions related to Voodoo.

Usually, zombies take on a new mythology in order to reflect the societal anxieties of the time.For the most part, early zombie tales reflect the theme of someone controlled by a mysterious other as well as our inherent fear of death. In the 1930’s and ‘40’s, it was used by racist white America to demonize black spirituality. In the 1950’s zombies represented the Soviets. In the late 1960’s and ‘70’s, counter cultural director, George A. Romero made zombies a symbol for the dominant culture; representing consumerism with movies like Dawn of the Dead and Night of the Living Dead. In the later ‘70’s, movies like The Omega Man see the rise of the Zombie Apocalypse; a world destroyed by environmental degradation or nuclear fallout, reflecting the growing Environmentalist and Anti-Nuclear movements. Although, zombie stories fell out of favor for a while, since the turn of the 21st Century, Zombies have come back. With a vengeance.

A quick search of The Internet Movie DataBase shows that since the year 2000, more than 200 zombie movies have been made. This does not include video games, novels, comic books, television series and other popular culture references to the living dead. Not only that, but a quick search of “UU Zombie Sermons” brings up no fewer than six examples including a list of hymns that apply to zombies. So, here is the question on my mind. Why now? Why are zombies so important to us?

In short: The stories we tell matter.

In the past 13 years, our lives have been radically shaken by terrorist attacks, global outbreaks, government crackdowns, shifting urban landscapes, global climate change and rising ocean levels. The world we experience day-to-day is chaotic and unpredictable. And we can allow ourselves to look our anxieties in the eyes by making them zombies. The modern zombie is very different from the ones we had to face in the past. What once was a slow, unthinking shuffling corpse is now graced with speed, agility and strength. In movies like 28 Days Later, I Am Legend, and World War Z, the Zombie Apocalypse is the result of an epidemic, chemical weapon or some other widespread disaster. It shows the fear we hold deep inside. Fears for our health and safety. Fears of terrorist attacks and even the fear of ourselves and neighbors. Just as important as ancient stories about the creation and destruction of world, modern stories of the same themes can be just as cathartic.

Watching modern zombie movies, there are certain plot devices that are resonant to today’s viewer. There is the scene where people run through city streets, attempting to outrun an unseen presence in the distance. Those of us who remember 9/11 will recall the denizens of Manhattan outrunning falling debris and dust clouds. Many zombie stories depict the spread of the zombie apocalypse much in the way that we have seen pandemics such as H1N1, HIV and Bird Flu grow. In most of these stories, there is a scene where a trusted friend or ally succombs to the infection and becomes part of the zombies--pointing to the fear of our neighbors as well the fallibility of our own bodies. Through these stories, we get to look directly at our anxieties and find catharsis.

My favorite piece of zombie storytelling is the comic book series The Walking Dead. In the series, we follow Rick Grimes, a small town sheriff’s deputy, who wakes up from a coma to find that civilization has fallen due to a mysterious pandemic that causes the recently dead to rise and consume flesh. These zombies are fast and travel in packs. They have the capability of basic problem solving and they are terrifying. Rick roams the land with a small band of survivors. And, in the comic, it has now been three years since Rick has awoken. And in those three years, he and the fellow survivors have had to deal with questions of morality and natural law, loyalty and family, birth and death, crises of faith, leadership, safety, terrorism, health, mobility, resource use, trust and many more issues. A close reading of Rick’s life story being pursued by flesh eating monsters helps bring me surprising comfort in a world that, at times, is complicated and frustrating. I can relate to Rick’s struggle to re-imagine leadership, masculinity, and responsibility in changing times. Through this lens of Rick and his interactions with zombies, I get a safe space to reflect on my role in this world and how I am going to live in it. It is a cathartic experience. Not bad for a comic book about the living dead.

Yes, the stories we tell matter. Even stories about zombies.

Here at UU Oakland, our mission is to promote transformation. We come here to be transformed so that we may transform the world. We strive to end oppression and violence in the world. We learn about ourselves and eachother. And we build community together. One of the ways we do that is by telling each other stories. During worship, social events and the covenantal work of our committees and ministries we tell stories. From our shared religious heritage as well our own diverse individual experiences, we tell stories to interpret our life experiences and learn from one another.  During services, our Pastoral Associates give a search for meaning--a brief time where we apply the theme of the service to our life experiences--just as Michelle did today about finding inscriptions in used books. Our covenant groups allow members to discuss our lives within and beyond the church and allow us to find deeper intimacy. During our committee meetings and personal ministries, we share of ourselves to find new and exciting ways to serve the church. Giving of ourselves and telling our stories, we do the good work of this church. We must take the opportunities to tell one another our stories when they arise.

But we also write communal stories together through our shared experiences. Together, we build stories that, hopefully, teach us greater compassion and strength for the journey. And by taking the opportunity to tell each other real stories, stories about our hopes and dreams, our disappointments and our successes, we not only relieve the anxieties of our community, we get to learn from one another and build a world we wish to see.

Yes the stories we tell matter.

Whether they are ancient myths told long ago, or told today by popular culture, or our own personal stories; the stories we tell matter and need to be told. If we are to build beloved community. If we are to set the Welcome Table and say that all are worthy and all are welcome, we are going to have to come willing to listen to the stories that matter. We will have to listen with open ears, minds and hearts. And we will have to be willing to listen for the deeper truths. And we are going to need to be prepared to create the space so that people are willing to share them. We will need to share our stories that create community, promote growth, work for justice and bring about change. And by telling our stories and listening together, we will go on this journey together to hold, heal and build a world we want to live in. By telling our stories that matter.

The stories we share and write together will be legacy of this church. Let us continue telling the stories that create community, promote growth and work for justice. And let us listen together for the deeper truths and the greater messages; the messages that give us more compassion and strength. The stories we tell matter. Friends, you matter. The service has ended but of our work has just begun. Amen.

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