My friends, this morning you may perhaps hear the strangest sermon ever preached from this or possibly ANY pulpit. It concerns an event which actually occurred more than a half-century ago to two persons I have known quite well and have complete trust in. One of the men—Curt Shaw—is today an 85 year-old retired Presbyterian minister who in the late 1950s and early '60s pastored what was to become MY first church- the Pleasantville Presbyterian Church, located only a couple of hours north of here. Over the years, Curt and I have become close friends, enjoying many golf outings and dinner engagements together. Last month when I returned to Pleasantville to help celebrate the church’s 150th anniversary, I took the time to drive out to his home in Tidioute where I spent the morning with him. He was a much beloved figure during his time there, leaving it in 1965 to become pastor of the Presbyterian church in Oakmont which he went on to serve for the next 22 years.
When you mention Curt to some of the old timers in Pleasantville, they will often smile and refer of some of his eccentricities, such as picking the mail up at the post office in his pajamas with a large cigar sticking out of his mouth, or taking the youth group out in the back of the church to scan the skies for UFO's. Yes, you heard me right- UFO's. Curt had an OBSESSION with "unidentified flying objects"- and for good reason. Back in May of 1964, he and a member of the church--Walter MacDonald--had been painting the sanctuary late at night. Around 10:30, they dropped their brushes and drove to Walter's house to grab a cup of coffee and pick up a crowbar. On their way back, Walter noticed a large glowing sphere suspended about twenty feet from the ground alongside the church's bell tower. It was clearly illuminated by the floodlights situated at the base of the bell tower. Attracted by this strange object, Walter exclaimed, "Curt, what's that beside the church?" Just then, it drifted across the street to where it was just about even with the second floor window of the house directly on the opposite side of the road. Neither of them could believe their eyes. For several minutes the two of them stared incredulously at what seemed a bright shimmering ball of light, about three feet in diameter. Then the unidentified object floated away from the house, settling in front of their vehicle, just above the car's hood. Walter was so scared that he kept imploring Curt to get the heck out of there, but Curt was completely and utterly transfixed. He had never seen anything like it before.
Suddenly, the orb of light took off. It traveled through the center of Pleasantville and proceeded down the hill in the direction of the city of Titusville, about seven miles away. Suspended only a couple of feet off the ground, it seemed to follow the dips and contours of the road where there had been some major construction going on. Curt was convinced that whatever it was, some consciousness was definitely directing it. Over the objections of Walter, Curt began to race through the center of town in an effort to keep up with it. About two miles away, in a stretch of road known locally as "Fieldmore Hill," he saw it again, off to the right in the middle of the field. He parked his car, got out, and slowly approached the object- a bright pulsating sphere of some kind. He estimates that for about twenty minutes, he stood there completely mesmerized while also feeling that somehow, it was observing him. Then, unexpectedly, it shot off to the west into the night sky at an incredible rate of speed.
By this time, it was almost midnight. Returning to Walter's, the two men spent a couple of hours reflecting upon what they both had seen. Glancing at his watch, Curt noticed that it had stopped and he couldn't get it going again. The next morning, he went into town to find out what the matter with it was and the jeweler asked whether he had been around heavy machinery recently, that his watch had become magnetized causing it to stop. Walter MacDonald--now deceased--was also a very dear friend of mine and he swore up and down to me that everything Curt related was true, that he had INDEED seen the object with his own eyes and was as sure of its reality as he was of me standing right there before him.
In the more than five decades that have passed, this retired Presbyterian minister has devoted a large part of his life just trying to make sense of that night. He has discussed his experience with countless scientists and investigators, has poured over hundreds of books, journals, and articles, and attended dozens of conferences to learn of others who may have had similar encounters with unidentified flying objects. On several occasions, Curt was interviewed by the head of Project Blue Book--the government's own investigation into UFO reports--and his account even found its way into several books and journals. Curt is what you would call a genuine and sincere believer, and till the day he dies, he will CONTINUE to believe- with a conviction that goes well beyond his head to his heart and the rest of his being. This is because he finds it impossible to deny that which he has personally experienced.
However, having heard their account many times over the years, there is a huge difference between how I believe and how Curt and Walter believe. When I say that I believe their story, I mean I believe THEY believe whatever it was they saw. Knowing what rational and intelligent men they both are, I’ve personally never had any reason to DISBELIEVE them. Recently, Ellen Stofan--NASA’s chief scientist--predicted that within ten years we’ll find signs of alien life with even STRONGER evidence for extraterrestrials in the years that follow. It’s not a question of “if” but of “when.” However, she wasn’t talking about little green men as she was little microbes that could open the door to our understanding even LARGER, more COMPLEX forms of life in the universe. Pope Francis has addressed the possibility of life beyond our earth TOO, saying that should Martians ever visit earth that he would welcome them to be baptized as well. “Who are we to close the doors to the Holy Spirit?” he asked.
As for the story itself, that is, as to whether what they saw was an actual UFO, I’m still left scratching my head because I’ve never had such an encounter MYSELF. If I did, then I would probably be just as much a fanatic about it as they are. Curt, however, remains a TRUE believer- for over half century, he (as did Walter) has staked his entire being and reputation on a personal experience that completely changed him and his perception of the world. That one night altered both their lives for good, and afterwards, they could never again be the same. Such is the difference between belief as "knowledge" and belief as "trust.” Where one is based in the head, the other is rooted in the heart; where one is rational assent, the other involves a commitment and a trust involving our entire LIVES. Though they did not COMPLETELY understand what they saw that night, they had absolutely no doubt that the object they encountered was REAL and not part of everyday experience. They knew that the usual government explanations could not account for it- that it was NOT a wayward weather balloon, NOT a build-up of swamp gas, and certainly NOT some super-secret experimental spacecraft.
I relate this story because the difficulty of believing a report so incredible and beyond our own experience is every bit as problematic as believing that twenty centuries ago, a man named Jesus, who claimed to be the Son of God, died for the sins of the world and, three days later, was raised back to life. Then over the next fifty days, we are told he appeared repeatedly to his followers- to assuage their fears, to charge their faith, and to restore their hope until he left for good, leaving the Holy Spirit—his personal presence in spirit form—in his place. The historical death and resurrection of Christ has been the defining story of our faith for the past two thousand years, and as our civilization continues to progress, growing increasingly rational and more secular, the story also becomes harder to believe for many people. After all, God's don't die and human beings certainly don't come back to life after having been expired for three days.
The scriptures tell us that it was early in the morning when Mary Magdalene and the other Mary arrive at the tomb to look at the grave which had been guarded by soldiers. All of a sudden, a violent earthquake takes place and an angel of the Lord descends from heaven. Approaching the stone, he rolls it away and then sits on it. At the sight of this strange figure whose face shone like lightning and whose garments were white as snow, the guards faint from fright. Then addressing the women, he says, “You have nothing to fear. I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; he has been raised again, as he said he would be. Come and see the place where he was laid, and then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has been raised from the dead and is going on before you into Galilee. There you will see him.” Hurrying away from the tomb with a mixture of fear and great joy, they are suddenly stopped by the familiar presence of Jesus himself. Overjoyed, they fall down and clasp his feet. He tells them, “Do not be afraid. Go and take word to my brothers that they are to leave for Galilee. They will see me there.”
Now let’s try to draw an analogy between Curt and Walter's experience with the UFO, and the CHURCH'S experience with the risen Christ. For both the women and the disciples, belief does not come easily, any more than it would have been for us had WE been present at that time. Jesus was dead- he had laid in the tomb for three days and decay had already set in. No amount of CPR could have brought him back to life. With his death, their dreams of a new kingdom were gone as well. They had to finally admit to themselves that he was not who they thought he was. It was now time to return home, resume their old jobs, and to leave the search for the Messiah to other people.
But as we know, it didn't end that way, that before they even had the chance to pack their bags, something happened to them to change their lives for good- Jesus appeared to them. They beheld his face and heard his voice; they saw the holes in his hands, his feet, his side. It was their Lord and of that, they had no doubt. Nothing would dissuade them for how could they deny an experience so personal and so real. With HIS return, the old hopes and dreams were revived; the adventure would again resume! As John would later write in the beginning of his first epistle:
"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life- the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us- that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you..."(1 John 1:1-4)
Here we see the difference between a belief rooted in the head and a belief based in the heart, a belief that captivates the WHOLE person. It was only when they encountered Christ PERSONALLY that their faith became cemented and they finally evolved into a unified group capable of "turning the world upside down." Likewise, when I look at the church--Presbyterian or otherwise--I see the two kinds of belief represented. I see those members who have been raised within its walls, who have learned the lessons and memorized the creeds and can faithfully mouth the prayers. It is a faith which for many has been inherited, a faith that is second-hand, a faith that is rooted in the head. Such faith often begins in one's theology and Christian traditions which then become the basis for interpreting one's experience. That's not necessarily bad because that's how faith often starts.
But then there are those for whom faith takes on a much deeper dimension. It is rooted not just in the lessons and creeds, in hymns and prayers but solidly in one's personal experience. They have had a personal encounter with the living God through his Holy Spirit and of that, there can be no denying. The scriptures are not the source of that faith but rather, they TESTIFY or VALIDATE that encounter. Such Christians regularly take comfort in his presence throughout the day; they speak to him as freely as they would a best friend; they are keenly sensitive that amidst all their normal routines and hum-drum existence, their lives are punctuated by yet ANOTHER reality that mysteriously breaks in from time to time- what are moments or intimations of God's transcendence. This other reality is VASTLY more powerful, and once it is glimpsed and experienced, life can never be the same. Faith becomes for us our adherence or trust in God's presence in such moments.
Such faith first begins in one's experience and then seeks to fit those experiences within the theologies and traditions of the church. This is a faith that can't be discounted, a faith that can't be denied, a faith that changes our lives so fundamentally that we can never again be the same. This is the faith of Curt and Walter had in their extraordinary confrontation with extra-terrestrial life, the faith of the disciples exhibited after the personal appearance of the risen Christ, and a description of OUR faith once we have encountered God through his Holy Spirit at significant and strategic junctures in our lives- moments in which we KNEW THAT WE KNEW that God was real and that he was seeking to draw us near to himself.
The fact is that NO theology, NO Bible in and of itself, NO pride in our church's traditions, and NO amount of proofs can ever convince a person of the veracity, the truthfulness, the authenticity of Jesus Christ. He must be met and experienced personally to know that he carries with him an authority that claims our devotion unlike any other. As Martin Luther once said, “I don’t know WHAT I believe, but I know WHOM I believe.” What he meant is that it is only upon meeting Christ in a genuine encounter that the heart says, "I surrender all," and humbly bows in reverence before him. ONLY THEN do the scriptures make sense to us; ONLY THEN do any of the creeds and prayers and history of the church become something deeply meaningful to us; ONLY THEN are our lives changed to such an extent that we can never again be the same.
And so what type of belief do WE possess this morning? Is it all in the head or has it taken over our hearts as well? Is it second-hand or is it FIRST-HAND? Is it inherited or is it experienced? The answer to this question will determine whether WE will be able to say, like John, "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life- the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us- that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you..." Let us pray...
Gracious God, help us to see and experience the risen Christ even as those first disciples did on that first Easter day. And then may the power of that encounter so fill our heads and especially our hearts that we can do nothing BUT follow you wherever you lead us and to do whatever you desire. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.