Fellowship Class

Tarrytown United Methodist Church

October 18, 1998

Wayne Danielson

Bad Guys

Genesis 3: 1-6. The serpent was the most subtle of all the wild beasts that Yahweh God had made. It asked the woman, “Did God really say you were not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” The woman answered the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees in the garden. But of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden God said, ‘You may not eat it, nor touch it, under pain of death.’” Then the serpent said to the woman, “No! You will not die! God knows in fact that on the day you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil.”

Genesis 4: 9-11. Yahweh asked Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I do not know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s guardian?” “What have you done?” Yahweh asked. “Listen to the sound of your brother’s blood, crying out to me from the ground.”

Genesis 27: 18-20. He (Jacob) presented himself before his father and said, “Father, I am here”; was the reply “who are you my son?” Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your first-born; I have done as you told me. Please get up and take your place and eat the game I have brought and then give me your blessing.” Isaac said to his son, “How quickly you found it, my son!” “It was Yahweh, your God” he answered,“who put it in my path.”

2 Samuel: 11:14- 17. Next morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it by Uriah. In the letter he wrote, “Station Uriah in the thick of the fight and then fall back behind him so that he may be struck down and die.” Joab, then besieging the town, posted Uriah in a place where he knew there were fierce fighters. The men of the town sallied out and engaged Joab; the army suffered casualties, including some of David’s bodyguard; and Uriah the Hittite was killed too.

Luke 22: 54-62. They seized him then and led him away, and they took him to the high priest’s house. Peter followed at a distance. They had lit a fire in the middle of the courtyard and Peter sat down among them, and as he was sitting there by the blaze a servant-girl saw him, peered at him, and said, “This person was with him too.” But he denied it. “Woman,” he said, “I do not know him.” Shortly afterwards someone else saw him and said, “You are another of them.” But Peter replied, “I am not, my friend.” About an hour later another man insisted, saying, “This fellow was certainly with him. Why, he is a Galilean.” “My friend,” said Peter “I do not know what you are talking about.” At that instant, while he was still speaking, the cock crew, and the Lord turned and looked straight at Peter, and Peter remembered what the Lord had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will have disowned me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.

Luke 6:27. “But I say this to those who are listening: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly.”

I went to my 50th high school reunion last weekend up in Iowa.

LaVonne went with me. Before we left, my son Ben dropped in to ask LaVonne what I had to give her in order to get her to attend. I didn’t think the reunion was THAT bad, but I guess you’ll have to ask LaVonne.

We had a reception and a dinner dance at the Burlington Golf Club. The club was all gussied up for the occasion — sparkles on the table, a real band, a country buffet, and for entertainment a barbershop quartet and a couple of ballroom dancers.

LaVonne dressed conservatively in black, with silver earrings. She was the star of the evening, in my opinion, and I shone in her reflected glory. About 30 seconds after we walked in, one of my old girlfriends came up and asked me, “Wayne, how old IS SHE?” I was well-known in the class, but if you look at my picture when I was 18 you can see that I wasn’t exactly a hunk. I think that my being there with LaVonne kind of cheered everyone up.

At the last minute, I was asked to say a few words. When Dick Nelson, the class president, introduced me, a scattering of applause swept across the room. That unnerved me. I hadn’t prepared a speech, and I wasn’t sure what I could say that would have any meaning for the classmates who had greeted me so warmly. I decided to fall back on some of the sayings you have been sending in for our class book:

• “You know you’re getting old when you get down on your knees to pick up something you’ve dropped, and before you get up, you start looking around to see if there is anything else you can do while you’re down there.” — I’ve forgotten which one of you gave me that one.

• “The person who first notices that the light has turned green is in the car behind you in line.” — Farland Bundy said that.

• “You can’t turn back the clock, but you can wind it up again.” — Jane Carlton gave me that one.

• “A balanced diet means having a cookie in each hand.” — John Dickson said that.

I also used a couple sayings of my own that I thought were appropriate:

• “Change is possible — ask any butterfly.”

That’s the title of our book, and I need to remind myself of its message every day.

And this one:

• “Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. That’s true, but it is equally true that the unlived life is not worth examining.”

We all need to remind ourselves of that every day, I told my friends.

And this one, too:

• “The difference between being alive and being dead has been greatly exaggerated. I know some people who are undoubtedly alive, who act as if they were dead; and I know some people who are undoubtedly dead, who are still very much alive.”

Life is just about as interesting as we decide to make it. Living life — really living it — is a choice that all of us can make. I said I was happy to come from a graduating class that had really lived their lives and that would continue to do so. I meant it, and I think they liked that.

And I thank you members of the Fellowship class who have taught me so much about living over the years. I thank you for making my impromptu speech at the reunion a little better than it would have been otherwise. Up in Iowa, I gave you the credit. LaVonne can vouch for that.

It was inevitable, I suppose, that I looked around at the reunion to see who was there and who wasn’t. Interestingly, the ones who were there now were the same ones who were there 50 years ago — the ones who put out the school paper, the ones who played in the band and orchestra, the ones who acted in the class play, the ones who decorated the gym for the homecoming dance, the ones who held fund-raisers for kids in the hospital. Those who were there were mainly the good guys.

By and large, the bad guys weren’t there — dead some of them, others just gone, address unknown. I missed them. I must admit I always had a certain fascination for the bad guys. I didn’t hang around with bad guys when I was a teenager, but they did interest me.

I liked to think about them from a distance.

You know the kind of guys I’m talking about: skinny guys in jeans and T-shirts, with packs of Camels rolled up in one sleeve. They had handsome, mean-looking faces, with hair falling down over their eyes. They rode motorcycles or they drove shiny, souped-up cars. Usually they had girls with them, brazen girls with pouty lips, girls who had a hard time reading the word “hamburger” on a menu.

The bad guys added a lot to our class. I envied them their evil ways. As I sat improving my mind in the school library I imagined them out playing hooky, driving across the Mississippi River to the honkytonks in Illinois, drinking beer, and talking about crimes they intended to commit.

But now they were gone: Filthy Fred Phillips, the judge, was gone. Andrew Weil, the window dresser, was gone, taken by AIDS. Kurly Kuhns, the accountant, was out of prison for embezzling from the Savings & Loan where he worked, but didn’t want to meet anyone anymore. Stink Baker, the wise-cracking life of the party, was in New London holed up in his cabin like the Unabomber. Tanya O’Kelly, who got elected to everything, her beauty gone, lived one day at a time in the grip of alcohol and drugs. And Jimmy Conrad, the bad-guy halfback who stole the beautiful Betty Burman from me, was mysteriously absent.

The surprising thing was that I missed them. I missed them all. I wanted them to be there.

Their smarmy natures had provided an abundance of bad examples for our moms and dads to use on us while we were growing up.

I remember when I accidentally used a bad word in front of my mother. She said:

“Wayne, if you’re going to talk like that, you might as well pack your bags and move out of the house right now and go live at Filthy Fred’s. I’m sure you’ll be happier over there with all that drinking and swearing and carrying on.”

What she said made me feel bad, and I tried to improve my wicked ways.

Now, as I looked around the room, I realized that the bad guys were gone. What would we do without their bad examples to guide our lives? How could we function without them? They were an essential part of our class. They provided a ruler of iniquity against which we could measure the meager amount of goodness we had achieved.

At my 50th reunion, my mother’s sharp optimism about the fate awaiting the wicked and the good seemed to have come true. The words of the psalmist resounded in my ears:

You have only to look around

to see how the wicked are repaid,

you who can say, “Yahweh my refuge’,

and make Elyon your fortress.

No disaster can overtake you,

no plague come near your tent:

he will put you in his angels’ charge

to guard you wherever you go.

They will support you on their hands

in case you hurt your foot against a stone;

you will tread on lion and adder,

trample on savage lions and dragons.

‘I rescue all who cling to me,

I protect whoever knows my name,

I answer everyone who invokes me,

I am with them when they are in trouble;

I bring them safety and honour.

I give them life, long and full,

and show them how I can save.’

Well, that’s pretty much the way it turned out in the class of ’48 at Burlington High School.The good guys were still there 50 years later, still doing good things. The bad guys were mainly absent, and I missed them.

There’s something about wickedness that interests us, isn’t there?

The Bible, for example, is filled with bad guys from beginning to end.

• There’s Adam and Eve at the very beginning, for example. We know all the trouble they got into after talking with that serpent. We could still be living in the Garden of Eden, I suppose, if there hadn’t been this little defect in their character the snake could exploit, some imperfection in that clay from the river bank from which the Lord formed Adam. But you have to admit that Adam and Eve were an interesting couple — and that snake — what a rascal he was. When Eve said they would die if they ate the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, the sneaky snake said “No! You will not die! God knows in fact that on the day you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil.” Well, both were right, weren’t they? The eyes of Adam and Eve were opened, as the wily snake promised, but once they disobeyed the Lord, they did come under the dominion of death, as God had correctly told them.

Just think of all the bad guys in the Bible:

• Cain, who slew his brother and tried to lie to God about it, saying “Am I my brother’s keeper?” — a phrase that causes trouble to this day.

• Jacob, who stole his brother’s birthright.

• Lot’s wife, who just had to look back toward her home in Sodom.

• Joseph’s brothers who sold him into slavery in Egypt and told his father he was dead. What bad guys they were.

• Moses, even Moses, the greatest of the prophets, was a murderer, having slain an Egyptian overseer.

• And the pharaoh whom Moses appealed to to let the people go. He was a nice piece of work. It took all sorts of plagues visited upon Egypt before he finally agreed to let the Jews go. And even then, he changed his mind and came after them with his army and his chariots.

• And the Hebrew children themselves, no sooner were they out from under the Egyptians than they went bad, making a golden calf and dancing around it at the very moment Moses was returning from the mountain bearing the Ten Commandments.

What bad guys they were.

• Delilah, who tricked Samson into letting her cut his hair so he would lose all his strength. A charmer to be sure.

• And David, the greatest of the kings of the Bible. God loved him, but David was not above bad behavior. He admired Bathsheba at her bath one evening, and so he could have her, he sent her husband Uriah to the front lines of battle, where he was sure to be killed when his men abandoned him on David’s orders. What a conniver he was. He was a bad guy a lot of the time, although he certainly paid for his bad behavior.

The New Testament people were scarcely any better.

• The young ruler who couldn’t walk away from his wealth to follow Jesus.

• The rich man, who stepped over the starving beggar, Lazarus, every morning on his way to work.

• The prodigal son, taking his inheritance and spending it on himself and his bad-guy friends in a distant land.

• Salome, dancing seductively before the king in her veils, and asking for the head of John the Baptist as a reward.

• James and John, squabbling over who would sit where in the Kingdom of Heaven.

• Judas, betraying Jesus for money, a few pieces of silver.

• Peter, the great Peter, my hero Peter, abandoning Jesus on the night of his capture, denying three times that he even knew him.

• Pontius Pilate, asking Jesus the very contemporary question, “What is the truth?” and then washing his hands of him and callously sending him to his death.

• Thomas, the doubter, having to be shown the very wounds of Jesus before he would believe in his resurrection.

These were all bad guys, terrible guys, sinful guys. But without them, we wouldn’t have a story, would we? We might not even have our religion at all. The goodness of Jesus was demonstrated in the midst of the wickedness of his time.

Somehow in all our holy writings the bad guys come along with the good.They need to be there. The good exists in a complex relationship with the bad. Without the bad, the good, the salt of the earth, seem to lose their savor. At least that’s how it seems to me.

I’m sure my interpretation is a terrible oversimplification.

The problem of good and evil is a profound one, and philosophers will argue to the end of time over its meaning for humankind.

I am glad that good seems to win out over evil most of the time. I am glad with the news this fall that people who go to church get over their illnesses faster than people who don’t. That encourages me to keep trying. I am glad that my faith enables me to engage the problems of my life and, from time to time, find solutions to some of them. I am glad that those who made it to my 50th class reunion were, in large measure, the good guys. There’s comfort in that. It was wonderful to see everybody again, and it was fun for me to introduce LaVonne to all the people I have talked about over the years of our marriage.

But I must confess that I missed having more of the bad guys there. I wish they could have made the Reunion. I needed them to be there, wearing their T-shirts, preferably, just back from the honkytonks across the river in Illinois, with their hair dropping down over their eyes, and a couple of girls of doubtful intelligence in tow. I really missed them.

I guess I found out something of value at the Reunion — that the bad guys in my life have meant a great deal to me too. They gave a new meaning to Jesus’s advice that we love our enemies. They enriched my life even though that was far from their intention. I hope that those who are still alive have changed their wicked ways, but if they haven’t, then I hope that they continue to provide to their fellow human beings what they always provided me, some valuable bad examples.