Fifty Years Ago: What Did We Learn?

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, November 10, 2013

Psalm 118:1-9 ESV

For some of you, today’s topic will be a walk down a not-so-pleasant memory lane.  For others, it will be a lesson in history.  Hopefully for all of us, it will be a time of introspection and learning.  You may at first wonder where the Christian sermon is in all of this; but bear with me and we will get there in the end.

So, for those of you my age and above, where were you fifty years ago on November 22?  Although I was only eight years old at the time, I vividly remember the events of that fateful day and weekend and the days that followed.  I am referring, of course, to the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on Friday afternoon, November 22, 1963.  I was sitting in my third grade classroom.  Mr. Brown, our Principal, who also happened to be my church’s pastor at the time, came running down the hall, opening every classroom door, and shouting, “President Kennedy has been shot!”  Our country, that afternoon, was shrouded under a pall of darkness.  It made everyone feel, as in the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, that the time was “out of joint.”  USA Today recently referred to it as “one of the defining moments of the 20th century. . . a moment in time that grievously wounded the nation’s psyche.”

I remember the somber newscasts—Walter Cronkite and others—going over and over the events of that fateful day.  On Sunday, the 24th, a big, surprise, family birthday party had been planned for my great-grandmother and my own mother, whose birthday happens to be November 24.  The birthday celebration was held at a two-room school house that had been turned into a community center.  I remember my dad sitting in his 57 Chevy listening to the news on the radio.  He just happened to be listening when it was announced that Lee Harvey Oswald, the prime suspect, had been shot and killed by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby.  On Monday, November 25, I remember my dad dropping my mom, brother and me off at my grandparents’ house.  I recall watching the funeral on their black and white television set—the slow, somber procession; the horse-drawn funeral carriage; the mourning widow and small children; little JFK Jr. saluting as his father’s coffin passed by.  The entire nation was in deep mourning.  Things changed that day.  The charisma of a young, idealistic, and rising president had been snuffed out in a second’s time.  So charming and charismatic were the Kennedys, after meeting them, even people who didn’t vote for him were totally captivated.  So much energy.  So much promise.  So many hopes.  And in a moment, all gone.  What did we learn?

We learned that any sense of invincibility that we might have had was shattered.  A relatively new, young President and a “New Frontier” administration, and a confidence in our nation as the number one nation in the world, was called into question.   As a nation, we may have thought ourselves to be unstoppable, invincible.  But an assassin’s bullet changed that in an instant.  Immediately questions started to arise, causing our nation to question its security and strength.  Was Castro and Cuban, or some other country of the world, behind the assassination?  Was it an inside job?  Was there a conspiracy against Kennedy, his administration, and the programs he was promoting?  Was the Secret Service itself involved?  Numerous books have been published and documentaries produced that have raised all kinds of questions about that fateful day and what really happened.  While preparing for this sermon, I learned things I had never heard before about how Kennedy might have really died.  And we may never know the real story behind that fateful day.  But as stated earlier, things changed that day, just as they changed again on September 11, 2001.  Any sense of invincibility or insulation from such a national tragedy we may have thought we had was shattered.

We learned that all men (and women), even presidents, are mortal and fallible.  In the years following Kennedy’s death, we learned things about him that were not previously known, or at least were not talked about publicly.  Things like Kennedy, while President, suffered severe pain because of a back injury while in military service, and we learned about some of the measures he went to in order to alleviate the pain.  Things like he had mistresses, the most famous of which was reported to have been Marilyn Monroe.

Such human fallibilities may have led the psalmist of old to warn against putting trust in princes (Psalm 118:9).  Princes and presidents are fallible and prone to error.  As the old saying goes, they put on their pants just like any other man or woman does.  And as the wise writer of Ecclesiastes points out, all die and go to the same place.  When it comes to the end of life, there is no difference between a prince or president or a pauper.  They all go the same way.  Presidents’ lives are just as fleeting and precarious as any other life.

I cannot imagine the mood of the Emergency Room workers who were called to Parkland Hospital’s Trauma Room 1 at 12:40 p.m. on November 22, 1963.  Can you imagine what kinds of thoughts must have been racing through the minds of those doctors and nurses gathered around the table on which lay the body of the President of the United States?  (As a side note, a movie was recently released that looks at the events of that day from the perspective of the Parkland Hospital medical staff.  It is called, appropriately, Parkland.)  The experience must have been surreal.  No, this can’t be! must have been going through the minds of those who tried to resuscitate the body of the slain President.  It must have been a hard lesson in mortality.

Thirdly, and most importantly for today’s purposes, perhaps, we learned that life is fragile and uncertain.  We don’t know what any day will hold.  So it is important that we arise each morning determined to interact with others as though it might be our last day together.  How important it is that we strive to deal with others in gentleness, understanding, appreciation, and compassion.  How important could be the words we speak, the actions we perform, the manner in which we part each day with those we love.  For you just never know.

But looking at it from another light, on a day when we are celebrating our Nursery School, children, teachers, and parents, we do well to consider how we interact each day with our children and grandchildren.  The words we speak, the way we speak them, the affection we show, the kindness we exhibit to our children and grandchildren are all so important.  I know it is a cliché, but our children do indeed grow up so fast.  And before you know it, they are in high school and then off to college.  And as parents we are sort of left thinking, Where did the time go?  If only I had done things differently!  If only I had been more patient, or spent more one-on-one quality time with my child when he or she was young.  I know what I am talking about, as I am speaking from experience.  Not only is life fragile and uncertain; it also is precious and fleeting. So may we determine to make the most of each and every hour we have with those we love, but especially our precious children and grandchildren.

Yes, fifty years ago we learned that we are not invincible; that everyone (including Presidents) are mortal and fallible; and that life is fragile and uncertain.  As we celebrate the children of our church and Nursery School, may we take these lessons to heart.  May we strive, each and every day, to enjoy, appreciate, and nurture the precious children and grandchildren God has given us.  Amen.

1USA Today, Aug. 8, 2013.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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