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paul davison: the pike river remembrance service

I can’t remember the last time a sermon by a kiwi for kiwis made its way on to the national stage –but that’s what happened at the Pike River Remembrance service. Surely a daunting challenge and at the same time a unique opportunity.

Daunting, because the sermon was broadcast live around New Zealand; the presence of political and community dignitaries; the limited time to speak; the unspoken (perhaps even spoken!) pressure to make it palatable to a secular audience; and on top of that the raw pain and grief of the families, friends, colleagues and community. But it was also a unique opportunity … for all the same reasons.

My observations aren’t of the speaker, who I don’t know, but whom I am sure his community love and appreciate for his kindness and compassion through this disaster. However I do want to examine the contents of the sermon. In just on 1000 words, what was said – what could be said?

Firstly, there was a Bible reading (John 11:33-36) which was drawn into the homily. The first third of the sermon was a sincere acknowledgement of the crushing grief experienced by those close to the miners and the mine. The community support that Mary and Martha received was paralleled with the support from around New Zealand and the world for the people of Greymouth.

The second section aimed at tackling the “Why” question: Why did these miners die? The answer given was that the mine explosion was an accident.

“… they weren’t taken. Not by God, fate or anything else. Their deaths were tragically the result of an accident, a terrible devastating accident, but still only an accident. There was no divine fate at work to snatch their lives away.”

God can’t be blamed because he isn’t involved in these things. So where was God? The third section spoke of God being there: “Waiting patiently, ready to reach out and offer comfort and support.” Again, leveraging off the Lazarus story, Jesus’ own grief and pain at the death of his close friend lets us know that:

“… in Jesus we have a God who is not away up there, completely divorced from everything we feel and hope for, but rather we have a God who can identify with us. A God who understands what it means to grieve.”

Therefore all who mourn can cry out to the God who understands our sadness.

Some of my observations:

  • I did appreciate that the sermon was restrained on matters of eternal destiny and did not over-promise salvation for all – the temptation of many.

  • I don’t really think that community grief and Jesus’ tears are the main points of John 11. So while the Bible was used, I don’t think it was used well.

  • Unfortunately, this exercise in theodicy offers us a deistic God who winds-up the universe and leaves it ticking along with natural forces in control. I might not understand the course that God is charting, but I do want to know that someone is actually at the helm.

  • Incarnation is, in the end, not enough. That Jesus knows our pain and grief is of some comfort. But more importantly he has acted (cross, resurrection, ascension and heavenly reign) and will act (second coming) to bring about a world where one day “there will be no more death, or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev 21:4)

If it had been me speaking, I might have explored how reaching our limits, being unable to enter the mine, brought many people – even our agnostic Prime Minster – to talk about prayer and God and hope.

I might have considered how death, with about 75 people dying every day in New Zealand, is reconsidered when it is concentrated in one place with 29 lives lost. Death focuses our minds more sharply on questions of God and eternity and religion/spirituality.

Easy for me to offer a critique from a distance; I suspect the reality of being up close physically and emotionally makes it much harder.

With only 1000 words what would you have said?

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Paul Davison has been the pastor of Hastings Baptist Church for the last 10 years. He is married to Joy and together they are the proud parents of four incredible girls.

11 Comments

  1. jfleener5 says:

    Hi Paul,

    Thank you for your thoughtful & biblical observations. It is important that we, as Christians, carefully and patiently evaluate all we hear over again Scripture. Thank you for modeling that for us.

    Blessings in Christ,

    Joe Fleener

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  3. Hi Paul,
    For what it’s worth, I thought it was wonderful. Not only did Rev Tim Mora avoid the mistake cramming too much – or the wrong kind of – content into his relatively brief sermon, but I particularly thought the sermon (and service) had a “cunning as serpents and innocent as doves” feel to it. (I wonder if some of the content you suggest above may have been heard as Christians using the service as an opportunity to evangelise?)

    What happened on the day – particularly in the sermon – was I think a shining moment for the Church of NZ: Christ was honoured in a faithful way that resonated with the moment as we saw the Church leading a community – with a country watching – in a service of grief.

    1. Paul Davison says:

      Hi Dale
      I did think it was particularly impressive that there was a remembrance service and that the churches of Greymouth were at the heart of it. Through the anxious days while there was hope of the miners only being trapped below ground – the meeting place for families and police was a local church; there were frequent interviews with church leaders; news reporters were even using churches as their backdrop for on-air updates. When the disaster came the churches of Greymouth were where the community turned.

      The remembrance event really was a service – a service with hymns, prayers, Bible reading and a sermon. It was not an interfaith service – no Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim input to the gathering. Of course there were contributions from agnostics/atheists – like any funeral service where those who knew the deceased speak about those who have lost their lives. But the religion that shaped the service was clearly Christian.

      So no apology was needed for “Christian” elements in the service – it was being organised and run by Christians. Therefore what greater word of comfort and hope could be held out to anyone present than the good news – the evangel? Is that not the best thing that Christians have to offer? Is that not the most loving and generous word that could be spoken? If that is “Christians using the service as an opportunity to evangelise” – is that not right and good? And I think the Greymouth service did go some way towards that.

      It does not have to look like a Billy Graham crusade for it to be evangelistic. When Paul was given the opportunity to speak in Athens he did explain the world as it really is, even if that did not fit the prevailing pattern of thinking in the Greco-Roman world. Paul did at least lay the ground work for Jesus’ work in this world. However, when Jesus was confronted with an account of mass murder and a building collapsing on people (Luke 13:1-5), he certainly gave a strong appeal to his hearers to get right with God.

      The question as to whether the service sermon was “a shining moment for the Church of NZ” depends on whether or not you agree with the ‘God isn’t involved and so isn’t to blame’ theodicy offered up.

  4. Interesting reference to Paul in Athens, Paul. Considering it was a climate well-friendly to debating and hearing new religious ideas it would be most interesting to see what Paul would have said at the very different ‘funeral’-like atmosphere of the Greymouth service? And I’m sorry, but I must have missed the bit where Tim Mora said anything compatible with ‘God isn’t involved…’? His comments seemed (to my memory) to be well within the extremes of a Deistic un-caring, uninvolved god on the one hand, and a personal bell-hop god on the other.

  5. Paul Davison says:

    Hi Dale
    For a transcript of the sermon see http://www.anglicantaonga.org.nz/Features/See-how-much-He-loved-him

    The sentence picked up by the media which I quoted in my original post:

    “… they weren’t taken. Not by God, fate or anything else. Their deaths were tragically the result of an accident, a terrible devastating accident, but still only an accident. There was no divine fate at work to snatch their lives away.”

  6. Thanks heaps Paul for the link to the transcript, and highlighting the part of the sermon which you found problematic. I guess to my mind, in that quote he seems to be countering a kind of popular or ‘folk’ religion (esp. w/ the reference to ‘fate’), and promoting a more biblical view of the almighty God (as his closing affirms) who is close, caring and comforting – and available to be trusted.

  7. Scott Mackay says:

    I agree Paul. We don’t have to deny that Jesus is Lord of this universe, in order to affirm that he is the one grieving at Lazarus’ tomb.

    Ironically, John 11 itself highlights this power of Jesus – the one grieving at Lazarus’ tomb also had the power to call Lazarus out of that tomb!

    And surely as the risen Lord of this whole creation, Jesus had the power to rescue those miners from their tomb at Pike River as well? Or are his hands tied by the unchangeable laws of nature?

    I’d suggest that true comfort for the grieving comes from knowing both – incarnation and resurrection.

  8. Ken Keyte says:

    Paul Davison’s article caught my attention because like many pastors around the country, the Sunday after the Pike River memorial service, I had my own opportunity to preach into this tragedy that had impacted so many New Zealanders in some way or another. I actually showed Tim Mora’s message to the church before preaching from Romans 8:11-27, a pertinent passage we just happened to have read that week in our E100 Bible Readings, which I gave the title ‘Fearlessly facing uncertainty.’
    I would give Tim Mora (who I also do not know) 10 out of 10 for his pastorally sensitive, biblically based and theologically sound sermon, that made me weap for joy at how masterfully he seized the opportunity to speak to our nation (including our Prime Minister) about the compassionate presence of Jesus in the midst or this tragedy.
    In answering the incredibly tough question ‘Why?’ some make the mistake of two theological extremes. Either God is a completely hands off God who leaves the universe ticking along with natural forces- the mistake Paul claims Tim made. Or we make the mistake of believing God is fully ‘hands on’ in which every catastrophe is divinely caused with a divine purpose for it. I belive the truth lies between these two extremes (which I also think is where Tim Morra was coming from). The truth is that we live in a fallen world, in which we all are vulnerable to accidents (like the Pike River mining explosion), natural disasters (like the Christchurch earthquake) and diseases (like the psa virus infecting Te Puke kiwifruit orchards). These are the tragic consequences of humanities corporate sin. But inspite of that, God has entered our fallen world to not only redeem it, but to also experience it. Meaning we can be sure he is there, knows how we feel and is able to help, when we cry out to him in the midst of trajedy, like Tim Morra invited the nation to do at the end of his message. My conviction about this truth comes not only from scripture but from grappling with this question as a young teenager after my father was killed in an aircraft accident at the prime of his chaplaincy ministry in the Airforce.
    If Tim had had 2500 words like I did the next Sunday, he may well have elaborated on other important points in answering the question ‘why?’ and maybe would have answerd the question ‘how?’ like I had a go at.
    – How can we fearlessly face the prospect of death? – with the spirit of him who gives us eternal life (Rom 8:11).
    – How can we fearlessly face natural disaster?- by experiencing the first fruits of the Spirit who gives us hope (Rom 8:23-24).
    – How can we fearlessly face personal inadequacy?- with the Spirit of him who helps us overcome (Rom 8:26)
    If I’d only had 1000 words to speak to the nation like Tim Morra had, I’m sure I couldn’t have said all that. Tim’s choice of John 11:33-36, I think, was an inspired one and while ‘community grief’ may not be the main point of this passage, it is a very suitable example of many examples throughout the gospels revealing Christ’s human emtions of weariness, anger, anxiety and yes grief.
    Well done Tim Morra, may the Lord continue to raise up excellent preachers like you to speak into the trajedies of our nation, and turn people to Christ!

  9. shaun hutson says:

    as someone who is in greymouth, and tim is my ministry supervisor,
    while the message may not have included the exact content which each of us may have thought most poignant, it was done by a man with evangelical convictions.
    we tried to find the balance between a service that reflected both the fact that most of those who died were not christians, and that it was the churches here taking the service.
    I do agree with paul, in that the church needs to get its head around tragedy. otherwise we end up saying God was there, but impotent.
    he either made it happen, let it happen, or was doing dishes at the time.

  10. Very interesting to get the perspective of a ‘greymouther’ – thanks Shaun.
    My bias is that he – quite appropriately, for every reason – took a more pastoral than apologetic approach. Rather than explaining God’s intent, he proclaimed God’s heart. A time for both (and more!), but for me it was the right choice.

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