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Durkheim’s time has come

I don’t recall what was happening around the time this sermon was preached, but I do recall that my rector was very happy that someone besides him referenced Emile Durkeim in a sermon.

To wit:

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

October 11-12, 2014

Ordinary Time, Proper 23, Year A

Exodus 32:1-14

So no one really knows what religion is. 

Given that we’re sitting in a church right now, that might surprise you.  But ever since people started studying this stuff as a discrete phenomenon back in the 1800s, no one has been able to decide on a single definition of ‘Religion’ as a thing that would both include something like Buddhism and exclude something like baseball. 

And it’s not for lack of trying. 

Scholars in the academy have been arguing back and forth about this, and spilling a lot of ink to try to save ‘religion’ from the fate of other “I know it when I see it” things and one of these was Emile Durkheim, who came up with the functionalism theory of religion. 

His pet theory of religion was as follows—and this is the radically oversimplified version:

He thought that people tended to band together in groups, or tribes.  And one way each group projected their group identity in the form of religion.  Every group had their own system of gods, which then was used to justify and approve the decisions of the group—like a Divine Mascot, essentially.  As the fortunes of the tribe waxed and waned, so did the religion of the group.  When the tribe went to fight against another tribe, their gods fought against the other tribe’s gods—and a religious crisis resulted.

Now, there are some glaring problems with Durkheim’s theory.  (He came up with it based on some studies of tribes in South America back in the mid 1800s, and nowadays, most scholars of religious studies discount it as archaic, and not a little bit racist.)

But for the first part of the Exodus story, this Divine Team Mascot theory actually seems to explain what’s going on!

When the story starts, the Israelites are in dire straights, all enslaved and whatnot, their god seemingly absent from the storyline.  But then!  just when all hope seems lost, and the erstwhile Moses has run away to hide in the wilderness, God shows up on the scene again, and declares himself about to save his people, and declare his judgment upon the gods of the Egyptians. 

And lo and behold, that’s exactly what happens. 

God sends Moses back to Pharaoh, backs him up in a giant, epic showdown, and in one plague after another, illustrates the power of the Israelite God versus the Egyptian priests and the Pharoah, whom the Egyptians regarded as divine, don’t forget. 

Finally, the Israelites are free!  Everything is going great!  God has saved his people, defeated the Egyptians and their gods.  EVERYTHING IS AWESOME.  Cue the dance party.

But then, just as the Israelites start to breathe a huge sigh of relief, just as they are sure that God loves them and they are winners! and the Chosen People and everything. 

This thing happens. 

It’s hard to tell what sets them off.  Moses takes too long to come back down the mountain and they get nervous.  It’s been a while since the last crisis and they don’t know what to do with themselves.  The ever present anxiety that they might get dragged back into the trauma that they just escaped from overwhelms them again.

Whatever it is, the story of the Golden Calf is an amazing story for a couple reasons—partially because later in the story, when Moses gets back down the mountain, and demands of Aaron what on earth he could POSSIBLY have been THINKING, Aaron tries to get out of trouble by explaining that “I have no idea what happened!, the gold just JUMPED IN THE FIRE, THEN THIS COW JUST JUMPED OUT, AND IT WAS THE WEIRDEST THING, I SWEAR.’   Thus channeling every misbehaving 3 year old in history.

But mainly, because up until this point, God has been the God of the Israelites.  God has been their God.  They have been his people.  But here, God shifts into “Upset Parent, Complaining to the Other Parent about the Misbehaving Kid” mode, and dumps all responsibility for THOSE people onto Moses.

“”YOUR people, whom YOU brought out of Egypt, have acted perversely.  You should go down at once.  Let me alone for a while, and I’ll just destroy them, start over and we’ll start over with you or something.”  God says. 

(Really, biblical scribes are not given enough credit for their senses of humor.)

All of a sudden, the Divine Mascot is no longer on the team.  God has left Team Israel and he is somewhere else now. Far from just justifying every decision his people make, God’s allegiance lays elsewhere.  And not for the first time, and not for the last time, someone intercedes with God on behalf of the people.

But God does not seem interested in justifying every single action of God’s people. Pretty clearly, God will point out to them when they are messing up badly.  God will yell pretty loudly when they run off the rails. 

So, if God isn’t going to just cheer them on, and back them up, if God isn’t going to just protect them and enable them no matter what, what does God want with a special chosen people of God’s own in the first place? 

Because pretty clearly, if you read through the BIble, being part of the chosen people gets you precious few perks.  Usually it gets your country invaded, it gets you lost in a desert for several decades, and you personally thrown in a well, or thrown in jail, or blinded, kidnapped, or shipwrecked.  If you were lucky.

The chosen people don’t get a free pass.  They don’t win the lottery of destiny, and they don’t get a divine mascot, giving constant high-fives.

What they get is a special calling to serve the world in a specific way.  To show the world the nature of God and God’s love through their actions and through their way of being. 

The chosen people aren’t chosen to be honored, aren’t chosen to be safe and aren’t chosen to have trouble-free lives—we are chosen to be servants. 

We are chosen to show the world what God’s love looks like, in our life as a community together, and through our lives out in the world.  That’s what we’re chosen for.  Not for privileges, but for service.  For servanthood. 

This chosen people idea does not mean God loves Israel more than anyone else, it does not mean God pays more attention to our prayers or anyone else’s prayers than someone else’s. 

All it means is the same thing I stand up here and tell you every week:  We have a job.  We are called to go forth and do justice, love mercy, and walk with God into the world. 

So go and do your job!


About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

2 responses »

  1. Add someone else thrilled to see Durkheim mentioned in a sermon. Next you should mention Auguste Comte, considered the “father of Sociology,” who suggested that Sociology replace all religion. He was probably right about that, says this sociologist and woman of faith.

  2. I think you should’ve returned to Durkheim at the end. And, actually, this could be a book. It’s just a nucleus now, but I want to keep reading and keep reading…and the sermon DOES end, if not with more Durkheim, a pretty compelling (and begging-to-be-fleshed-out) thesis. xoxo


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