April 2022


This is the text of the sermon broadcast from Leeds Minster this morning on BBC1 television.

John 20:1-18

It was early and it was dark. And a woman stands weeping in a cemetery.

Her name is Mary of Magdala, but it could easily be Natasha of Kharkiv or Lyudmilla of Bucha or Magda of Mariupol. Standing in the ruins of a life and community, ruptured by violence and fear, is – tragically – not a rare experience in the world in which we live. ‘Normality’ has been torn apart and an anticipated future looks shredded in the dirt of destruction. Just watch the television and this fearful horror is everywhere in Ukraine and Syria and Yemen.

And women – it usually is women – stand weeping in the ruins of the world.

If we have the imagination to put ourselves – even slightly – into the skin of those women, we might glimpse just briefly and inadequately what it means to lose everything and fear what might lie around the corner. Violence terrorises and always seems to win in a world in which might is propagated as right and virtues such as humility, integrity and love are seen as feeble.

But, this Easter Day offers to shine a different light into this darkness. And this woman, Mary Magdalene, stands alone for now, bereft, but about to embark on a hitherto unimagined and unimaginable journey. Resurrection is the start, not the end.

One of the funniest books I have read recently is Jonas Jonasson’s Anders the Hitman and the Meaning of It All. One character printed a shedload of Bibles, but, having fallen out with the Christians, added a line after the final verse of the final book of the New Testament: Revelation. He added: “And they all lived happily ever after”, thus, of course, rendering the Bibles useless.

Because the characters involved with Jesus of Nazareth knew there was nothing romantic or fanciful about their story. Here there was no comforting ‘happily ever after’ fantasy. They had put their hopes into the wandering Galilean who had helped them to see God, the world and themselves through different eyes. They had followed him, staked everything on him, and now they have watched it all bleed into the dirt of Calvary – a world ended in violence and injustice. And they might be next.

No wonder, then, that the discovery of an empty tomb didn’t provoke joy or excitement. It simply added to the fear and bewilderment, the horror and the loss.

So, what changes everything? After all, the men had simply gone home to what was familiar and relatively safe. But, the woman – this woman – stays and weeps. Helpless. No agency. No hope.

What changes is a question and the sound of her name. The risen Jesus doesn’t present her with an explanation; rather, he asks why she is weeping and for whom she is looking. Blinded by grief, she then hears her name spoken amid the dereliction within and around her. “Mary.”

Answers to the uncertainties and horrors of life cannot be reached before the questions have been asked of us: “For whom – for what – am I looking?” If our common life is all about the accumulation of security and stuff, then who am I when it is all stripped away … or buried in the street as the tanks withdraw and the reporters point their cameras? And who are we – collectively – when death and mortality place a large question mark over our society, our common life, our priorities, our way of living and being together? Pandemic – conflict – loss.

Easter Day should be fearful before it is joyful. Resurrection has to be met with facing the questions and hearing our name spoken quietly in the darkness.

Names matter. Mary discovers she is known. Jesus’s recognition of her matters more than her grasp of him. She might struggle to use his name; but, light shines when she knows that she is loved and known, right here in the darkness.

And the women of Bucha and Mariupol? It is so important that the names of the lost and abused people of Ukraine are remembered and spoken and not forgotten – even among the ruins of their homes. While states fuel the violence and missiles destroy cities, the quiet defiance of hope – of resurrection, even – dare to suggest that death, violence and destruction will not have the final word. Death might be everywhere; but, the quiet whisper of our name means that the journey has not finished – the destination has not yet been reached. This is the love that will not let us go – that compels us to challenge any social order that kills and demeans and diminishes any people. Racism, antisemitism, imposed poverty, industries that enslave and drugs that steal people’s souls, politics that prioritise ideology over people and sacrifice truth on the altar of power.

We can generously offer that same resurrection hope that surprised and bewildered Mary in the garden on the first Easter Day … when we enable bereft people to hear the whisper of their name, knowing they are known and loved and held – by God and by us.

Indeed, Christian faith is no fantasy. But, it proclaims quietly that we need not be driven by fear, but can be drawn by hope. In our search for light and love, for a future through and beyond the now. And in our commitment to those who fear their name has been forgotten.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought with Zoe Ball on BBC Radio 2 on the day they announced that September will see Radio 2 Live in Leeds.

Did you know that today is National Read a Roadmap Day? No? Nor did I. Who dreams up these things?

I use satnav all the time, but I do recognise that technology changes the way you see the world. If you look at a map – on paper – you know which way you’re facing and where you are in relation to other places; with satnav you just follow a line ‘forwards’.

When we had just moved to Leeds eight years ago I really struggled with the road system. The city centre loop means that you sometimes find you’re driving in the opposite direction to the one you think you should be on. So, you have to trust your screen or map and suspend your instincts. It’s not comfortable, but it works.

And, given one or two disorientating driving experiences here, I always hear the echo of some lines by Bruce Cockburn in a beautiful song called ‘Pacing the Cage’. He says: “Sometimes the best map will not guide you; you can’t see what’s round the bend. Sometimes the road leads through dark places; sometimes the darkness is your friend.” Does that sound odd?

Well, none of us needs any lessons today about uncertainty or dark places, do we? Nearly five million people are on the move from just Ukraine. They have no idea what lies around the next corner, but are all too familiar with dark places … as they long for light and the warmth of love.

This is why refugees from war will arrive traumatised by experiences most of us can barely imagine. Yet, the darkness of loss can be illuminated by the light of love and mercy and friendship and hospitality. The Psalms of the Old Testament give frequent voice to the reality of terror and hope. As he approaches his probable execution in Jerusalem, Jesus knows that violence will not have the last word.

And just as many people here in Leeds are reaching out in compassion and mercy to individuals and families for whom the darkness is fearful, they shine a light that cannot be extinguished. Like the loop system, you get there in the end.