In the 2012 movie “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” manager Sonny Kapoor has marketed the Jaipur hotel he inherited from his father as a retirement home for budget conscious English retirees. The place is terribly dilapidated—basically it’s a wreck—so central to the narrative is how a small colony of English expats adjust to the reality of an Indian home that is both more beautiful and more ruinous than they had imagined. Their responses span the spectrum from curiosity and delight to dismay and anger. And in the midst of it, the eternally optimistic Sonny continues to cast the most positive vision of his hotel. Where the reality does not match expectations, he promises that it will get better. Most definitely. Straightaway. In three months.
Whose characterization of the place are you going to believe? The curious one who thinks there is good yet to be discovered? The cranky one who refuses to consider any good possibility? Or the one who says it’s going to be all better in three months despite all evidence to the contrary?
I offer this these characters as a kind of parable for listening to our first lesson this morning, which you might think of as a showdown between the prophets Hananiah and Jeremiah over the future of the Jewish kingdom under Babylonian rule in the sixth century BC. We have, on the one hand, the prophet Hananiah telling the Jewish king Zedekiah that the leaders and temple vessels that had been pillaged and taken to Babylon would be returned within two years. This in stark contrast to the melodramatic Jeremiah, who came to the showdown wearing an iron yoke as a symbol of ongoing Jewish bondage to Babylon. Which he predicted would last for three generations more.
Here’s a pro-tip: the book we’re reading from is called Jeremiah and not Hananiah, so even if you don’t know the whole story, you can make an educated guess as to who won the argument.
Based on the passage we heard this morning, however, you might not know the nature of their argument, or even that the two prophets were arguing at all. What we just heard Jeremiah say is “Amen! May the Lord… fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord, and all the exiles.” It sounds like he’s agreeing with Hananiah, right? And really, who wouldn’t? Surely God’s will was for the chosen people to be free to worship in their own temple with their own vessels in the holy city of Jerusalem. And the sooner the better. Most definitely. Straightaway
We can’t really tell from the text whether Jeremiah’s “amen” response was sarcastic, or simply an acknowledgement that his competitor prophet’s vision was appealing, even if he knew it to be untrue. I tend to think the latter, because it’s a universal human tendency to prefer prophets who tell us what we want to hear.
Which is what makes Jeremiah an especially challenging prophet to listen to, because he rarely said anything that anyone wanted to hear. Then or now. Consider the final words of our Old Testament lesson today: “When the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.” Did you get that? We’ll know which prophet speaks the truth because what they speak comes true. But how does this help us to know who to listen to right now?
What Jeremiah’s hard teaching reminds us is something we probably already know to be true: that most good things take longer than we want them to, and that in most of our significant life choices, we decide with incomplete information. We really don’t know what of our hopes will come true when we chose a vocation or a partner, raise a child, take a certain course of treatment, or give a gift. There are no shortage of prophets ready to give us wanted and unwanted advice, but in the end we still have to choose in faith and then wait—possibly a long time—for the outcome.
“Almighty God, you have built your Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets,” began our opening prayer this morning, “with Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone.” In the multiplicity of prophetic voices currently competing for our attention—you might call them Rachel Maddow or Glen Beck or Pope Francis or TD Jakes—our Episcopal Book of Common Prayer cuts through the clamor with its characteristic common sense. Listen to Jesus Christ. If this house of prayer is to stand, it will stand on the foundation of Jesus’ teaching.
Which is of course why we give the Gospel lesson pride of place each Sunday, carrying it into the middle of the congregation, so that we know where to look for the cornerstone of our Biblical teaching. In the midst of arguments among prophets that have persisted for millennia, his voice comes to us like a cool drink of water on a hot day. Welcome a prophet, he tells us. Welcome a righteous person. Give a drink to the thirsty little one.
More even than listen to Jesus Christ, our Gospel tells us to be like Jesus Christ. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Be merciful, repent, care for the poor, the disabled and the prisoner. And thereby enact the kingdom of God. Which is probably more than two years away, and yet is fully realized every single time we do these things.
This is God’s strategy for how to survive times that are beautiful and ruinous. Stand on the cornerstone of our faith and do what Jesus tells us to. Which we won’t be able to do all of the time. We’ll forget, we’ll follow the wrong prophet, and we’ll seek after short term gratification. But one of the reasons we call Jesus the chief cornerstone is that, within his community and his grace, we have the freedom to admit our mistakes and keep trying.
Our almost 3000 year old Biblical tradition suggests that the prophet who tells us everything will soon return to the way it used to be is probably the wrong one pin our hopes on.
That was certainly true of Sunny Kapoor; the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel did not become a British-style retirement community in three months. But the movie script gave Sonny another prophetic utterance that is much more in keeping with the vision of Jeremiah and Jesus.
“Everything will be all right in the end,” he said, “and if it’s not all right, it’s not the end.” Although it may have been John Lennon who said it first, this is actually a perfect statement of the nature of Christian hope. The prophets, apostles and Jesus Christ himself testify that the good intentions for which we were created will not be subverted, and God’s willingness to give everything and take all the time necessary to redeem all creation is our trustworthy good news. Even if it means we have to suffer a few more generations of Babylonian captivity along the way.
The free gift of God that is eternal life in Christ Jesus, that Paul talks about in his magisterial letter to the Romans, is the promise that whatever the prophets are currently arguing about will not have the final word. Whatever hard decision you may be facing now does not define you. Illness or disability are not forever normative, and even death itself does not constrain God. No, everything is not all right at the moment. The beautiful democracy we celebrate this weekend might even feel like it’s being governed by Babylon—but that only means that it’s not the end.
Maybe God will give us three months to welcome the prophet of the righteous one, any of whom might be visiting Trinity on a given Sunday. Maybe God will give us or two years to give cups of cold water to thirsty ones. Maybe God will give us generations to send teams in service to Nicaragua, or cards to sick or lonely people. The cornerstone that is Jesus Christ ensures that the time horizon doesn’t matter—eternity is being constructed every time we do his work—so let’s get out there and do it.