Nasty Disturbing Uncomfortable Things!

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Jeremy Richards

J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Hobbit begins with Bilbo Baggins, a respectable hobbit, sitting outside his quaint hole in the ground with its round door, having a nice smoke out of his tobacco pipe. Bilbo comes from a long line of respectable hobbits on one side, the Baggins, but his mother’s side, the Tooks, are known to be a bit strange. Some of his Took ancestors were known to go on adventures and even enjoy them! Respectable hobbits don’t go adventures. To quote Bilbo, adventures are “nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!”

As Bilbo sits smoking his pipe outside his hobbit hole, along comes Gandalf the wizard, though Bilbo doesn’t realize it’s Gandalf initially. At first Bilbo’s very happy to see this traveler and invites him to have a smoke with him. He’s enjoying his morning and is glad to have some company.

“…a very fine morning for a pipe of tobacco out of doors,” he says. “…if you have a pipe about you sit down and have a fill of mine! There’s no hurry, we have all the day before us!” Then Bilbo sat down on a seat by his door, crossed his legs, and blew out a beautiful grey ring of smoke that sailed up into the air without breaking and floated away over The Hill.[1]

Bilbo is having a wonderful, comfortable morning, with all of his creature comforts and not a care in the world, but as his conversation with Gandalf progresses, he becomes less and less enthused about his new conversation partner, who he eventually discovers is none other than the famous Gandalf the Grey, who is “responsible for so many quiet lads and lasses going off into the Blue for mad adventures.”

The breaking point comes when Gandalf tells him that he’s going to send Bilbo on an adventure. In a hurry to get away Bilbo gets flustered and accidentally invites Gandalf to tea the next day. “Sorry!” He says, “I don’t want any adventures, thank you! But please come to tea – anytime you like! Why not tomorrow? Come tomorrow! Good bye!” Then he hurries back into his hole. As soon as he gets inside he asks himself, “What on earth did I ask him to tea for?”

Around tea time the next day, there’s a knock on Bilbo’s door, but when he opens the door he finds that it isn’t Gandalf but a dwarf, who barges into his tidy home and happily helps himself to Bilbo’s cakes and tea. More and more dwarves come streaming in, demanding beer and all sorts of food. Finally, Gandalf arrives with the 13th and final dwarf, Thorin, the leader. Bilbo learns that Gandalf has signed him up to be a burglar on the dwarves adventure to defeat a dragon and reclaim their rightful treasure, something Bilbo wants nothing to do with.

By the end of the night, Bilbo’s pantry has been cleaned out, he’s fallen in with an unwelcome lot of crude dwarves, and he’s about to be forced out of his comfortable life and into an adventure he’d rather not be on. If Bilbo had never opened the door, if the meal had never happened, perhaps he could have avoided this adventure. Perhaps he could have stayed safe and sound, but inviting these outsiders in, breaking bread with them, set his life on a very different path.

This is, in many ways, what it’s like to be a Christian I think. We initially enjoy our conversations with Jesus when he comes along. We invite him into the comforts of our lives. Jesus seems like a good companion to smoke a pipe with or drink a cup of coffee with. He’s good company on a rainy day, someone to talk to when we’re feeling lonely, a shoulder to cry on when we’re sad. But it doesn’t take long for us to become uncomfortable with the conversation. He starts telling us to let go of our wealth, to lose our life in order to find it. Most distressing of all, he keeps speaking about a cross. He won’t shut up about it, and neither will all the Christians who came after him. We learn that he picked up his cross and was crucified, and that we’re also supposed to pick up our crosses. That sounds much worse than just an adventure. Talk about a nasty disturbing uncomfortable thing that will make one late for dinner! Like Bilbo, we say, “Sorry, we don’t want any crosses, thank you!”

We quickly rush away to a safe and cozy hole. But as we make our retreat, we don’t want to be rude or offend Jesus (he is the Son of God after all), so we holler over our shoulder, “Come back another day. I’d be happy to talk to you then.” We hope that the next time we see Jesus he will have forgotten all that talk about crosses and sacrifices and letting go of all the material things we’ve come to love so much.

But then Jesus surprises us. We had thought this whole thing, this whole invitation to let him into our lives was about, well, him and us. But instead he starts sending us all kinds of people we’ve tried to avoid most of our lives and would never have thought to invite to our tea party. "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” Jesus says in Luke. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” the author of Hebrews says.

Eventually, Jesus does appear amidst these rough and seemingly unsavory characters, though. Only, he isn’t telling them to behave, isn’t teaching them how to respect the carefully manicured hobbit hole we’ve created for ourselves. Instead, he’s right there in their midst, making a mess, gobbling up our food, asking for money, needing a place to stay. Once the door is open and the meal has been had, we’ll find ourselves on a different trajectory, tossed into an adventure that is anything but safe, an adventure full of excitement but also full of trolls and spiders and goblins and dragons.

Of course, none of that has to happen if we don’t open the door, if we don’t invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind in. If we prefer, instead, to stay safe, we can keep our lives in order, just the way we want them. The problem is that Gandalf is with the dwarves. Jesus is with the down and out, the struggling, and the outcasts.

Most American Christians – at least white, middle class American Christians – I’m sorry to say, are like Bilbo at the beginning of the book. They would like to keep enjoying their day, intentionally oblivious to the dragons, trolls, and orcs that live beyond their borders. They’d like to invite Jesus into their creature comforts. But they have no interest in an adventure. Their faith is meant to add to their life of comfort, not detract from it. It’s supposed to add a sense of spiritual fulfillment to their mostly comfortable lives.

The problem is that Jesus never once tells us that the life of faith is safe. In fact, he tells us the opposite, and warns us that we should really think about it before entering into the business of following him. Next week, in fact, in the Gospel reading from the lectionary, Jesus asks who builds a tower without counting the cost, or who goes to war without first considering whether they have a chance to win or not? He ends this teaching with the disturbing conclusion, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (Luke 14:33). Again, this sounds pretty nasty, disturbing, and uncomfortable!

Unlike the modern church in the United States, the early church understood what they were getting into: to be a Christian was to be ostracized by your community. Your family might abandon you. Your business would suffer. Of course, we know that most of the original 12 disciples were martyred and many Christians throughout the first few hundred years were as well. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.” The assumption of the early church, both in the New Testament and in the centuries that followed, was that the way of Jesus is anything but safe. It’s risky.

This is essentially the point of our reading from Hebrews this morning (especially in the verses that are excluded, 9-14). Expanding upon the author of Hebrews’ command to “Let mutual love continue,” the New Testament scholar Lewis Donelson says:

To love may be many things, but it always includes making oneself vulnerable. To love is to stand outside the safe camp; it is to open oneself to the violence of others. Even if Hebrews names love without either defining or illustrating it, the text does give the sense of vulnerability which haunts love. To love is to let another person, an unreliable other person, inside your safe walls. This is so whether the one you love is your husband or your enemy.[2]

Love and risk are two sides of the same coin. If it isn’t risky, it isn’t really love.

We’ve been talking about partnering with the Cupcake Girls, which means providing a place for sex workers to come and worship. I’m glad that we’ve decided to slow down and take our time in making our decision. That’s wise, and it’s kind of our way. So I’m all for thoughtful, discerning decision making. Maybe God is calling us to partner with the Cupcake Girls, or maybe God will tell us this isn’t for us. I trust that the Holy Spirit will guide us.

But I do want to say that if we don’t partner with an organization – whether it’s the Cupcake Girls or anyone else – because we’re more concerned about doing what’s safe than doing what’s right, then we have strayed from the way of Jesus. We can’t call ourselves Christians and withhold love because of the risks that may come along with it. Jesus never followed the safe path, he always followed the path of love, which Lewis Donelson reminds us is the path of risk, the path of vulnerability.

The truth is, it doesn’t matter who we reach out to, if we are going to care for the marginalized then it will involve risk. When we joined AWAB and proudly welcomed and affirmed LGBTQ+ Christians, we opened ourselves up to risk. Parkrose UCC is a welcoming a affirming church here in Portland with a gay pastor. A couple of years ago a man walked into the middle of their service and started yelling, telling them that being gay was wrong. He didn’t physically hurt anyone (though he could have), but many in the congregation were traumatized by his hateful message. By being a welcoming and affirming church, someone could target us. If we make a point to welcome houseless folks, there will be risks there, because we don’t know who will come. If we invite immigrants and refugees, we might become a target of hate crimes. Whenever we reach out to margins and invite those on the outside in, it will be risky.

But that is the nature of love. Love doesn’t let us hold those we’re helping at arm’s length. Their struggles become our struggles, their pain our pain, their danger our danger. “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”

This is the example Christ set for us. As the famous hymn from Philippians tells us, he didn’t consider equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross. Jesus wasn’t just willing to suffer, he knew for a fact that he would suffer, and yet his love for us and for all of creation led him to take on humanity himself, to laugh and joke and celebrate but also to weep and suffer and even die with us as one of us.

The upshot to all this, of course, is that love really is the only way to live.

Yes, it’s risky, but who wants to live a life that’s free of risk but also free of love?

Who wants to stay in a hole in the ground, no matter how nice it is, rather than go on an adventure?

When we open ourselves to the other, when we risk love, we’ll find Jesus in the center of it all, inviting us into a way of life that isn’t safe or respectable, but that’s full and wild and brimming with the Divine.

By the end of his adventure with the dwarves, Bilbo has become a different person – or a different hobbit, I should say. In fact, Gandalf says just that as he and Bilbo return to the Shire. “My dear Bilbo!” he says, “something is the matter with you. You are not the hobbit that you were.”[3]

After his adventure, Bilbo has lost his respectability in the eyes of his community. He’s become associated with riff-raff. The narrator explains:

It’s true that for ever after he remained an elf-friend, and had the honour of dwarves, wizards, and all such folks as ever passed that way (he invites all kinds of people in!); but he was never quite respectable. He was in fact held by all the hobbits of the neighborhood to be ‘queer’…I am sorry to say he did not mind. He was quite content; and the sound of the kettle on his hearth was ever after more musical than it had been even in the quiet days before the Unexpected Party (when the dwarves and Gandalf showed up).[4]

I believe the change in Bilbo is also the change Christ wants in us, that we would let go of respectability and the pretense of safety, which we know is an illusion anyway. We cannot control our safety any more than we can control the weather. That we would become friends with the misunderstood in our world, that we would invite them into our lives and our homes and our church, that we would come to love them as we love ourselves. That the kettle would always be on, whistling a tune of welcome. Amen.


[1] JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit, 2.

[2] Lewis R. Donelson, “Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C: Second Lesson: Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, The Lectionary Commentary: The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles, 519.

[3] JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit, 227.

[4] JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit, 228-229.