Angels in the Mosque: Sacred Violence and Sacred Hospitality

(This sermon was delivered on Sunday, August 19, 2010 at the First Congregational Church of Wilmette.)

What is sacred in your life?

I’m asking this question because the word “sacred” has been used a lot during the last two months in American culture, and it has me asking a few questions, “What is truly sacred?”  What do you personally hold with supreme value in your life?  What is sacred to your family?  What is sacred to us as a church?  What is sacred to us as citizens of the United States?

Now, whenever I preach I feel like I should say at least something about the Bible.  The Bible uses the term “sacred” in primarily two different ways.  First, it reveals the human tendency to identify material objects or places as sacred.  These are sacred objects you possess.  They belong to you or to your group.  These objects could include people, buildings, land, and other items. [1]  We associate supreme value in objects we possess and once we possess the object, we don’t want to share it with others, certainly not with strangers, for that would contaminate our sacred object.  Unfortunately, this view of the sacred leads to violence, because we don’t want to share.  Some call this “sacred violence.”  The curious thing about this, is that the more value we associate with our sacred object, the more likely others will associate the object as sacred and want to take it from us.  We see this today – everything from young people fighting over shoes or ipods, to adults fighting over inheritance or property, to nations fighting over the right to develop nuclear weapons.  Soon, the fight over sacred objects in no longer about the object, but about winning the power struggle and defeating the other.

This view of the sacred is in the Bible and it has a name: idolatry.  Idolatry is one of those bad religious words in our contemporary culture, but idolatry basically refers to an excessive devotion to an object.  According to the Bible, this excessive devotion leads to a false sense of the sacred.  The authors of the Bible admitted they were not immune from the traps of idolatry.  Indeed, they admitted their propensity toward idolatry, but they also critiqued it by claiming that what is truly sacred is not given a sacred quality by humans, rather God identifies the truly sacred.  We see this in the beginning of the Bible, with the creation story in Genesis.  The first chapter of Genesis makes this claim:

So God created humankind in his


In the image of God he created


male and female he created them.

Here, God identifies the truly sacred.  And do you see how God does it?  Humankind is in the image of God.  Genesis does not give us a view of humanity that says, “Only we are created in the image of God.”  No, for Genesis, this is universal.  God bestows this sacredness upon every human being.  

What fascinates me about this passage is that it was written either during or shortly after the Jews [2] were exiled in Babylon.  The Babylonian Empire conquered the kingdom of Judah and exiled the Jews throughout their kingdom.  Living in the northern suburbs of Chicago, it’s hard for us to imagine this experience.  It was obviously traumatic and painful for these ancient Jews.  Many were killed while attempting to defend their home and most of those who survived had to live in exile.  Now, if I were to have written the creation story in Genesis after this experience, it would have gone something more like this: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; except for those evil Babylonians.  Never forget what they did to us.  There’s no way they are created in the image of God.”  And then I would have made my point very clear by writing, “Thus saith the Lord: Babylonians are evil jerks.”

But that’s not what the author wrote.  Instead, the author was able to overcome this painful experience.  We would understand if the author and this community remained bitter and resentful.  The author and the author’s community were able to begin the process of healing and forgiveness, thus, they were able to say that everyone, even the Babylonians, everyone is created in the image of God.  They were committed to seeing the sacred image of God in their fellow human beings, not because they associate others with the sacred, not because they liked or disliked others, but because God bestows all people with this sacred quality.  This theological statement, that God bestows all humans with this sacred quality, has ethical implications.  It matters how we treat our fellow human beings, even, as Jesus says, those we call our enemies.  This universal view of the sacred leads us away from idolatry and sacred violence. Rather, it opens us up to living an alternative way of life.  Following our passage from Hebrews, we might call this alternative way the spirit of Sacred Hospitality.

But Bible doesn’t stop with seeing the sacred only in our fellow humans.  Over and over again the Bible makes the claim that the sacred is not isolated in a particular geographical location or building, such as Land or a Temple.  The truly sacred cannot be contained in any location.  For example, when King Solomon built the Temple, he recognized the futility and idolatry of trying to isolate the sacred in a building.  Solomon says about God, “The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you.  How much less this temple I have built!” [3] And the prophet Isaiah also critiqued the idea of isolating the sacred to property or land, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” [4]  Here we see again that the sacred is universal and meant to be shared by all.

So we have these two concepts of the sacred running throughout the Bible.  The first is the idolatrous tendency of humans to identify objects as sacred, keeping those objects for ourselves and excluding others from them.  This idolatry leads us to a spirit of sacred violence and exclusion.  The second view of the sacred claims that a gracious and generous God gives this sacred quality to all people.  It claims that the truly sacred cannot be grasped or isolated by anyone.  The truly sacred is universal; there is enough of the sacred to share.  This leads us to a spirit of openness, generosity, and “sacred hospitality.”

Now, to us, hospitality may simply mean inviting some friends and family members over for a night of entertainment.  But that’s not quite what our passage this morning from Hebrews has in mind.  The passage starts by saying, “Let mutual love continue.”  It’s important to know that when the Bible uses the word love, it doesn’t refer to positive feelings about another.  No, for the Bible, and especially for this passage in Hebrews, love is a verb.  It is an action.  For example, our passage goes on to say, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  The key word here is “strangers.”  Think about that.  It’s challenging.  I mean, strangers may be angels, but they may not be.  This love is not about security; rather it’s a risky love that makes us vulnerable to the other, to the stranger.  This love actively seeks the well being of the other, who may be a stranger, or as Jesus teaches, may even be our enemy.

I admit that this is not easy.  As much as I would like to believe with Genesis that all people are created in the image of God, and believe with Hebrews that this image means that all deserve some form of hospitality, it can be very hard to believe this.  Hebrews refers here to the story of Abraham and Sarah, who invited three strangers into their midst and cared for them.  Later they discovered the strangers were angels who came to bless them.  I like that story.  But, to be honest, I’m often afraid of strangers.  I’m suspicious that they are not out to bless, but to curse.  We even tell our children, “Don’t talk to strangers.”  It’s good advice for children, but reveals our cultural fear of those we do not know.

Fear of the unknown is nothing new.  When the author of Hebrews wrote nearly 2000 years ago, his audience also feared the unknown.  That’s why he had to make the point, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.”  There are plenty of excuses to not show hospitality to strangers.  The greatest excuse might be fear.  And fear tends to build upon itself.  We judge strangers before we even meet them.  It’s easy for our imaginations to run wild when we hear rumors and accusations against people we don’t know.  But Hebrews points to something greater: it points to faith.  Not a faith that God will protect us from all danger, but faith that living in the spirit of love and sacred hospitality is the best response to a world that is so often run by the spirit of idolatry, fear, and sacred violence.

I can’t help but think about how this relates to our contemporary situation in the United States.  Our passage from Hebrews this morning challenges us to live into the spirit of mutual love that leads to sacred hospitality.  Yet, much of our culture seems to insist on mutual hostility, suspicion, and resentment.  So much of the language on television, in our political discourse, and in our religious discourse is becoming more and more extreme and leading us toward the spirit of hostility and sacred violence.

What concerns me the most over the last few months is the very inhospitable way many have been talking about Muslims and the way our culture is dealing with the “Mosque at Ground Zero.” Some are making the extreme accusation that all Muslims are Nazi extremists out to conquer the world.  This is scapegoating and it betrays the millions of Muslims living peacefully and productively in the West. These extreme accusations allow us to conveniently project our own cultural extremism onto another culture, which naturally leads to growing hostility and resentment on both sides.  Take the “Mosque at Ground Zero” controversy.  Even the way our culture has falsely titled this controversy leads us to mutual hostility, suspicion, and resentment.  The cultural center is not at Ground Zero, it’s two blocks away.  What many are saying is that, “Muslims Americans are not really Americans.  They are second class citizens.  We have identified this ground as sacred to us.  Not only this specific ground, but we’re going to arbitrarily say that two blocks away from this ground is also sacred.  We don’t care that there is a Gentleman’s club a block form the proposed site!  They can’t use it!”  Do you see what’s happening here?  This is idolatry leading to exclusion and sacred violence.  I can understand the impulse to exclude others.  I get it.  It’s understandable, it may even be natural.  But for people trying to follow Jesus in our modern context, it’s sinful.  That’s another bad word for us mainline liberal protestants.  But it simply refers to actions that cut us off from our fellow human beings.  Actions that lead us away from the spirit of mutual love and toward a spirit of fear, hostility, and sacred violence.  The Bible warns us that idolatry leads to sacred violence.  And we see that violence happening.  Verbal violence against Muslims is prevalent, but physical and emotional violence has also begun. A taxi driver was stabbed this last week for simply being a Muslim and doing his job.  A church in Florida plans burn thousands of Qur’ans on 9/11.  Frank Rich of the New York Times cites sources and claims that “Existing or proposed American mosques hundreds, even thousands of miles from ground zero, from Tennessee to Wisconsin to California, are now under siege.”[5]  This is not about ground zero or even really about a cultural center.  This is a cultural power struggle that leads us into a spirit of hostility.  There are many who don’t want us to see the image of God in our Muslim neighbors, but would have us believe Islam and Muslims are evil.  This accusation cuts us off from our Muslim neighbors.  Once we fall under the spell of this myth, we will never encounter the Muslim angels living in our midst.  This will lead us down a dangerous road.  And, if I may have a light moment here, anyone who has been married for more than three weeks knows that, in the end,  nobody really wins a power struggle. 

But there is hope.  Maybe the best response we can make as followers of Jesus to this controversy is to say, “Of course you can build an Islamic Cultural Center there.  Not only can you build it, but we will help you.” If we can’t make it to New York, followers of Jesus could go to local mosques that may be under siege and stand in solidarity with our Muslim neighbors.  If local mosques are not under siege, maybe followers of Jesus could go to a mosque, talk with Muslims, learn from them, and tell them we stand with them during this time.  I’m sure you can come up with better ideas.

Still, the hope that I find is in the Gospel.  For it calls us to be an alternative to the sacred violence that surrounds us. We see that alternative here in Hebrews.  Hebrews invites us to be courageous and take risks.  To be courageous and extend the hand of mutual love in the spirit of sacred hospitality.  For in doing so, we may shake the hand of angels.  Or, our hand may get slapped.  Either way, the world, maybe now more than ever, needs to be shown the spirit of mutual love and sacred hospitality.

May we the church live in that spirit.



[1] Such as a golden calf – Exodus 32.

[2] Technically, they are not Jews yet.  The people known as Jews came about after the destruction of the Temple in 70CE.  These people were exiled from Judah, so many have called them Judahites.  That’s cumbersome for a 21st century sermon, so I’ve decided to use the term Jews.

[3] II Chronicles 6:18.

[4] Isaiah 6:3.

[5] Frank Rich, How Fox Betrayed Petreaus.  New York Times. August 21, 2010.

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