The Grapevine in the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Week of Sunday May 10 - Easter 6
Gospel: John 15:9-17

‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. 9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

12 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is in Jaipur, in India. One of the residents is Muriel Donnelly, a bitter, sick, and appallingly racist English woman who has come to India for cheap hip surgery. She finds herself being wheeled into an unfamiliar part of the city, and learns that she is being taken to the home of Anokhi, a Dalit serving girl at the Hotel.

It turns out that Anokhi has invited Muriel to her house because she, of all the people in the hotel, is the only one who has even acknowledged the Dalit ("what they used to call untouchable" girl's presence. Her whole family has gathered, which is a great mark of honour, and Muriel is presented with especially prepared dahl and chapatti.

Muriel hates Indian food, but recognises, as the hotel manservant tells her, that not to eat would be a terrible insult to the family. As she is gasping for breath after a mouthful of hot chilli she sees the neighbouring children playing with her wheel chair outside, and explodes in a torrent of foul language.

And miserably tries to apologise for her outrageous behaviour. Her abject regret almost brought me to tears. Sometimes it seems we can never undo the damage we cause

For Muriel at this point there is a most painful pruning. The secateurs of the Kingdom of Heaven may make clean cuts, but there is no anaesthesia. Repentance means facing the immense nastiness of our humanity.

In a later scene, Muriel returns. The manservant is asked to translate. Muriel's little speech of thanks becomes a monologue retelling of the abuse and abandonment, and the despair, of her own life. The translation stops and the young unnamed Dalit woman simply listens to words she cannot understand.

She listens to the voice of human pain which transcends language, age, and culture. Like one of us in church, not really sure what the hurting person is talking about, she listens— someone finally just listens as Muriel tells her story, mostly to herself, but with someone hallowing her enough to listen.

There is a profound healing in this for Muriel. She leaves her last precious English biscuits for the woman and her family. It is a sacrament of friendship and thanks for their precious giving of food to her. It is all she has to give, and it speaks across language and culture as effectively as our Great Sacrament of food and friendship given by God.

In her halting way she repents and loves in return. It brings her to health and fruitfulness. The movie is romantic and improbable. It contains not a little to offend some Indian sensibilities, although it is also stark in its critique of English culture.  But within the story, Muriel becomes a pivotal person in the salvation of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. She enables its survival.

The most injured and wronged, and arguable the most unpleasant person of them all, becomes the saviour of the place. She stands in strong contrast to Mrs. Ainslie, who refuses to engage with her situation, and refuses to change. Most of the English folk are there because they are poor, and India offers a cheaper way to live. But Mrs Ainslie recovers her fortune! Her bad investment in her daughter's internet company suddenly yields a glorious return. But she goes home alone. She will not be pruned and chastened and challenged to be friend. She will not be humbled. In the end, in her rejection of all that is Indian— in the movie India could be seen as a symbol of new life, she is more racist than Muriel, and exultant to be flying home First Class, she loses everything.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a metaphor for the Kingdom of Heaven. The kingdom breaks into our mundane and often lost lives, with painful pruning and glorious light, and at times when it seems we are defeated. Jesus comes not as Lord over we slaves, but as friend.

In our congregation we are hurting, wronged and damaged people trying to be honest about our hurts and woundings— especially those we inflict on each other. We are trying to be friends rather than staying safe in our little bubble of how things should be. We are the pruning of each other— God's word to each other— hesitant, inexpert and fearful. This is where heaven breaks in, for we are not minister and congregant, not Lord and slave, not healthy and sick, successful and failure. Not employed and retired, not old and young— but just friends. Just those who love. "God is where love is, for love is of God" Alison Robertson wrote as she put so much of 1 John into the words of her hymn.

We can read that we are called to abide in Christ.
We can read that he loves us and gave his life for us.
We can read that he wishes for his joy to be in us and for our joy to be full.

We can hear that he calls us friend!

But none of this amounts to much until we will love each other by listening, helping, respecting, and even pruning a little.

We are not good at it! We are all Muriels! But we do not have to be Mrs. Ainslie. We can engage with the new life by trying to love each other. And then…

then all the words become true and real. "I am the true vine…" ceases to be impenetrable theology or incomprehensible text. It ceases to be holy irrelevance. It becomes the poetry of truth, and it carries the words of salvation.

11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete… 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

When we love each other, painfully and inexpertly, we are being The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. We are being Kingdom of Heaven in our own movie. Mostly without the exotic romance of India, but with the reality and the real healing of life with does not happen in a book or on a DVD. We can bring the movie home.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.




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