“When Our Beliefs Become Real”

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – February 11, 2018

Centenary United Methodist Church

II Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9


    In our Gospel lesson for today, Mark described an experience by Peter, James and John that has no parallel in the Bible.  These moments were traumatic for the disciples.  Not only did Jesus’ appearance become radiantly transformed, but he also began to speak with two spirit-beings that the disciples assumed were Elijah and Moses.

    Finally, when a cloud cover descended on the mountain, the men heard a voice coming from within the cloud.  When the voice said, "This is my son.  Listen to what he has to say," they were overcome with terror and threw themselves on the ground.  (Matthew 17:6) 

    One of the most exciting and yet frightening moments in life is when what we talk about on Easter morning actually happens in the lives of people.  There are a number of common responses from people when they have an encounter with deceased loved ones.

    There is an immediate fear of what is happening. People have said that they froze as their hearts began pounding harder than at any other time in their lives. After the event, they often develop a genuine curiosity. People want an explanation for what just happened. They want to know if what they experienced was real. 

    For most people, they find a hesitancy and reluctance about telling anyone about their experience.  They do not want anyone to draw conclusions that their experience was a part of some grieving process, or that it will bring into question their mental health.

    There are numerous incidences in the Scriptures where people have had close encounters with extraordinary experiences.  It was certainly not normal for God to call out to people from a bush that looked like it was on fire. (Exodus 3:4) It was not an everyday event for Jesus to reach out to someone when that person was on his way to Damascus to arrest Jesus' followers. (Acts 9:3f)

    A number of people during my ministry have wanted to talk about their experiences in great length.  For them, the experience was life-changing.  They knew that deceased people do not come back and talk to us.  They knew that they will be awakening from their surgery in the recovery room, not during surgery where they clearly watched their medical team still at work.  And yet, when these experiences occur, very few people know how to understand and interpret what is happening.

    Some years ago, I served on the Board of Directors of a corporation that owns and manages five major campuses of Continuing Care Retirement Communities.  One of our administrators called me one afternoon with a concern.  From previous conversations we have had over the years, she knew I would understand and make some recommendations. 

    Over sixty residents had reported seeing ghosts on her campus.  These were credible, highly intelligent people.  Some of them were among our professional staff.  One of our registered nurses actually threw a bedpan at one of these apparitions that scared the wits out of her by walking toward her and passing right through her body.

    These sightings became a problem because children could be heard laughing during late evening hours when there were no children in the building.  Some residents were getting out of their beds and putting on their clothes because they were directed to do so by these entities. 

    On different occasions, a number of residents saw a Native American woman.  They provided identical testimonies about what she looked like including the same description of the garments she was wearing. 

    One of the concerns of our administrator was that these episodes might find their way into the newspapers.  She did not feel that this news would be welcomed by our marketing department, particularly because there were no explanations for what our residents were experiencing.

    What is most intriguing about these events is that our administrator explored the history of what had taken place on the parcel of land many years prior to our campus being built there.  She learned that an entire family with a good number of children died during a house fire.  Long before that, a Native American woman had been murdered on our building site.

    We dispatched our chaplain to go to the campus in order to hold a service with the concerned residents.  It was an awkward moment for our chaplain.  He was not used to conducting exorcisms. As strange as all this may sound, after the service, there were no more incidents. 

    What I do know is that these episodes were authentic and that their ending also coincided with the discontinued use of an experimental device at a United States Naval facility near our campus. The device created a very low frequency hum that generated waves of vibration that was designed to be used for underwater Naval defenses.

    This by itself would not have drawn attention as a cause for what our residents were experiencing.  However, a news article surfaced months later that this same experimental device had produced the appearance of apparitions in Ohio, "just as they had in southern Maryland."  This means that the Navy knew about the events in Maryland.   Perhaps our campus was not the only location where these apparitions were making their appearances.

    The reason I have intimate knowledge about these events is that these episodes occurred during my tenure as chairperson of that Board of Directors.  The matter never surfaced in any of our board meetings, so I am not clear even to this day how many people knew about it. 

     My purpose for sharing this story is for us to ask ourselves why such events are greeted with surprise, shock, and fear.  Rather than confirming the truth that we live after we shed our bodies, a number of people find ourselves being traumatized like the disciples who threw themselves on the ground utterly terrified by the abnormal.  Why are we frightened by an event that demonstrates what all of us confess as a matter of faith?

    Being as wise as he was, Jesus advised the disciples not to tell anyone what they had just experienced until "the Son of Man has risen from death." (Mark 9:9) One would think that it was great news to tell everyone that they had just witnessed Jesus talking with one of the earlier prophets and the giver of the Laws that governed their people. 

    Jesus taught his inner group of disciples:

In my Father's house there are many rooms and I go now to prepare a place for you so that where I am you may be also.  I would not tell you this if it were not true. (John 14:2f) 

    We know this teaching and we make claims that we believe this in our heart-of-hearts, but a number of us would prefer to look forward to this experience and have it become real after we leave our physical forms and not before. 

    As was mentioned earlier, a number of people in my former churches have reported to me that they were stunned when a spouse had returned to talk to them, when a daughter experienced her mother's return to comfort and reassure her that "Momma was doing just fine," or when a confirmed atheist needed an explanation for what he experienced. 

    When I arrived at the bedside of this police officer in our county, he told me that he watched a nurse put the paddles of a defibrillator on his chest by reaching through his body while he was sitting up. He turned around and saw his body lying on the gurney experiencing a cardiac arrest.  Since I had performed his marriage ceremony a number of years earlier, he turned to me for an explanation. 

    For John, this experience became life-changing.  I told him that his beliefs or lack of beliefs have nothing to do with what naturally happens to everyone of us when we leave our bodies. 

    God would never allow any of us to incarnate into our physical world if doing so put our eternal destiny at risk.  As with many of our beliefs, we all formulate our own conclusions about matters of faith.  Our spiritual growth advances according to the level of our spiritual awareness and our thoughts about the nature of God's spirit.

    Lois and I both experienced the intense presence of her deceased brother one evening as both of us were returning to our home at different times. As she got out of her car, she was overcome with fear and went directly into our home.  However, she told him to wait there because I would be coming home shortly.  When I arrived, I also became filled with an awareness that Keith was there and needed to communicate with me. I went into our backyard and had a running conversation with him. A number of you have previously heard this story.

    There have been a number of these encounters in my life, so I am no stranger to such events. However, I have never had a visual sighting.  I have only experienced words entering my mind that were clearly not my thoughts. 

     What is most curious about the experience of the three disciples in our lesson is that they were not spiritually or emotionally secure even after this intense episode with Jesus on that mountain.  They had listened to his preaching and teaching that the Kingdom of God was near. They claimed to believe Jesus, but where was this understanding and faith when their own lives appeared to be in danger?

    They ran as Jesus was being arrested in the Garden. (Matthew 26:56) They gathered behind locked doors. (John 20:19)  Following his death, Jesus appeared to a group of women.  When the women told disciples that Jesus was alive and that they had just spoken with him, these men of faith did not believe them. (Luke 24:11)

    Where was the testimony of Peter, James and John about what had happened to them on Mt. Hermon?  Why were they silent?  Did they fear that their friends would treat them as they had just treated the women?

    Those of us who know the story, recognize that something dramatically happened to the disciples once they witnessed that Jesus was alive! These once defeated men were suddenly energized by their new awareness.  They clearly were not bothered anymore by the threat of being killed.  They did not just believe that life continues, they knew that life continues. 

    Having such an experience erases a lot of our fears.  If we could rid ourselves of fear, a large barrier to our living would be removed. By conquering fear, we could bring with unbridled enthusiasm a slice of Heaven into the daily lives of everyone.



Loving, generous, and always present God, we often come together for worship unaware of what to expect.  It is a challenge to let go of the distracting influences that pass through our minds and emotions. We long for experiences that transform how we interpret life’s events.  Help us to remember that without death we would not be able to experience the joy of being spirit-beings. Without experiencing people who are unkind to us, we would not have the opportunity to forgive.  Without hardships and challenges, we would become like fair-weather sea captains.  Cause us to remember that the more we trust in your guidance, the stronger our trust becomes.  Amen



O God, there is so much about life that we find difficult to understand.  We look eagerly for the winds of inspiration that give flight to our spirits.  We give thanks for the stream of divine energy that no one can see.  Your presence surrounds us and inspires our confidence that all of life’s complications will eventually work out.  We are amazed that not everyone can sense your presence as we do.

We thank you for faith that enables us to take risks that broaden our horizons.  Thank you for the course corrections that call us away from the places where we know we should not be.  We thank you for all the experiences that we cannot explain.  Those moments always come in a form that feeds our imaginations. Help us to remember that in spite of how challenging life appears sometimes, we are never without choices that are inspired by your presence. 

We pray for the 92 nations that have gathered in South Korea for the Winter Olympics.  We pray that the image that we are one will take root in the hearts of the assembled athletes.  We pray for a peaceful gathering that hopefully will mold the athletes into the greatest sales force on the face of the earth for what love thy neighbor looks and feels like. We all pray that miracles will flourish during this competition.

The beginning of our Lenten season this Wednesday is a remarkable time for the world to celebrate its togetherness.  We pray these thoughts through the loving spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught his disciples how to pray each time they say . . .