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The Lure of Mediocrity
March 7, 1976

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

MARK 8:27-33

I imagine some of you smart ones out there, noticing the sermon title, ask, “I wonder if he’s prepared a mediocre sermon in honor of mediocrity.” If the sermon is mediocre this morning, it’s not the subject matter’s fault. The subject of mediocrity is hardly mediocre, it’s an interesting subject. During this season of Lent, signifying and symbolizing for us are the purple cloths at the pulpit and lectern. Purple reminds us of repentance, passion, and the agony that Jesus went through. In remembering Jesus’ journey to the cross, I am preaching a sermon series called “Journey to Life,” where we take a look at our journey along the road to life. Life is like a journey, like a trip along the road, with the kingdom of God the destination. The love of God, life, all that is happy, beautiful and peaceful is there waiting at the end of the road, and we experience it as we go along the road also. Along this road are many bypasses; enticing, beautiful roads with many temptations to go off on a different road that is usually much smoother, much more comfortable like a huge freeway. The temptation is to turn off the road and follow the smooth way. Jesus said, “Broad is the way, easy is the way that leads to destruction. Narrow is the gate. The way is hard that leads to life.” 

In this series I’d like to look at some of the roads that entices and seduces us to turn off his road and follow another way. One of these is the lure of mediocrity. We are constantly confronted as we go along our journey with all kinds of roads leading off to mediocrity, There are barkers along the road, like in carnivals. The barkers as we walk by whisper, “Come on, why don’t you take the easy way? Why do you work so hard? Why do you try so hard? Come on, take the easy way, just relax. No one’s going to give you anything from trying so hard. So you reach excellence, who’s gonna who’s gonna notice, who’s gonna care? In fact, the more you strive for excellence, the more people are gonna laugh at you. Come along the easy way.” 

The New Testament lesson this morning reflected the fact that the disciples, Jesus’ friends, did the same thing to him. When Jesus began to talk about how difficult his life was getting, and began to talk about the opposition gathering to attack him, the disciples said, “Why don’t you just take it a little easier? Why do you have to go to Jerusalem where all the trouble is? Why don’t we just stay out here in the country? Why don’t you be a little more tactful? Do you have to speak so severely to the Pharisees and the Sadducees? Why don’t you just be a little more tactful, a little more diplomatic?” And Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan, leave me alone. For I must do what I must do. And I must go where I must go.” And that call was to life. 

How seductive, how enticing, how attractive is the temptation to take the easy way, to settle for second best rather than to strive for excellence. Thomas Carlyle once said of someone, “He was born a man and he died a grocer.” There’s nothing wrong with being a grocer, but only a grocer? He died a man with all the potential and he died a grocer. 

I’ve been reading this week about St. Francis of Assisi, an uneducated man, not a priest, just a common person who in his desire to find salvation, in his desire to find God started the Franciscan Movement. He was a great man with much agony and turmoil in his life, a man who knew what real prayer was about and who knew what real love was about. He preached love—love the animals, love the birds, love the flowers, love the sun and the moon. He preached an acceptance and love of all of life and all people. One day, he said to the companion who traveled with him, “Brother Leo, the greatest joy in the world…” (And Francis was the kind of man who would break into dancing, he loved to dance in joy) ..”the greatest joy in the world is to do the will of God. The will of God is the same as your own deep will. What you really, deep down, way down inside really want to do is God’s will.” Brother Leo said, “But Francis, we want many things. How do we know what is the real will of God?” 

That’s a question we all ask, “How do we know what is the will of God?” The preacher says something, my parents say something, the school teacher says something, my wife tells me something, my job tells me something. All these pressures are coming in on me, all these desires that I want to do, all these urges within me, what is the will of God? How do I know what God wants me to do? How can I tell? Do you know what Francis said? He said, “The will of God, when you have conflicting desires and wants, is whichever is the most difficult.” Whatever is the most difficult is the will of God for you. In tackling what is difficult, you will grow and become a better person. 

Mediocrity, on the other hand, is when little is demanded, little is asked of you, little is expected of you with a minimum amount of struggle, a minimum amount of agony, a minimum amount of discipline. That’s mediocrity. Mediocrity is when you’re content with a “B” when with a little work, you could get an “A”. Mediocrity is when you’re content with a “C” when with working and discipline, you could have a “B”. Mediocrity is when you’re content with doodling or writing or drawing little pictures on stationery when with work, determination and training you could be an artist. Mediocrity is when you’re content with singing and playing country music and popular music when with training, discipline and practice you could handle the classics. Mediocrity is when you are content with being a big shot in the church lawn baseball games when with a little effort and a little risk, you could try out for the school team. How many great pro-baseball players have been lost to the world because some of them were content with playing baseball on the church lawn because it’s easier?

Mediocrity is when a person is content to think what others think, to think what my friends think, to think what my community thinks. Mediocrity is to be content with what other people think instead of training my mind and following it to its logical conclusions even when it differs with everyone else. Mediocrity is when you are content to thaw out a TV dinner or open a can or some prepackaged garbage and put it on the table instead of taking the time and effort to seek out nutritious food, cook it as it’s supposed to be cooked and serve a balanced meal to the family. Mediocrity is when you are content to be one of the crowd rather than risk jeering and being laughed at for standing up for an unpopular cause. Mediocrity is when you are content to be a Girl Scout and just be part of the troop, and not make that extra effort to earn badges, do projects and things that you don’t want to do, that you’re afraid to try, that you’re a little frightened to stand up in front of people. Mediocrity is to be content with doing little. Mediocrity is when you’re content to live up to the expectations of most of the people around you because the expectations of most people are very little, very low. How fortunate you are if you have friends, or if you have a family who constantly expect the best of you. But most expectations of our peers, most expectations of our groups, of our systems and our institutions are mediocre because they don’t want to be threatened. 

The book and the movie “Conrack” is about a young man who graduated from college as a school teacher, a white man. His first teaching job was on an island off South Carolina. This is based on a true story. The island was made up entirely of blacks—illiterate, poor people. Most of the people who lived on that island had never crossed the water over into South Carolina. All they knew was that little island. Conrack found the children illiterate; they couldn’t read, they couldn’t write. They were ignorant of any kind of history. They didn’t know who George Washington was. They were on an island and they didn’t even know how to swim. When confronted with that kind of a situation, he just unleashed all his creative, ingenious powers. 

He became a school teacher like you’ve never seen. He took those kids on hikes. He sat in the trees with them as they learned the names of animals, birds and plants. He taught them how to swim. He sang, danced, shouted, ran with them. One day, the biggest thrill in their life was to cross the mainland, much to the disturbance of the white people in the next town. He took them on the ferry boat across the mainland to Trick or Treat on Halloween, a thrill of their lives. He was a great teacher, a creative teacher. He had rapport. He communicated with them and the children responded. They began to learn and you know what the school system gave him? 

They fired him! The institution, the system didn’t know what to do with him. He threatened the system. He disturbed them. They couldn’t handle him. They couldn’t control him. They couldn’t predict his behavior, he upset them. And that’s the way systems are. That’s the nature of every institution. The nature of every group is to keep the common low denominator of mediocrity. Those in power get threatened by creative innovative poets and dreamers. People in power get threatened because they can’t control the situation. It was this kind of system that crucified Jesus and hung him on a cross because they didn’t know what to do with him; there was no room for a revolutionary, no room for a dreamer. There was no room for one who loved to see love. Jesus threatened those in power, he threatened their leadership. And they fired him from the human race. 

It’s always a challenge to us to watch our systems and to be on the alert. Our forefathers knew this. They, very ingeniously, set up in our country a system of checks and balances so that no group in government has more power than the other, so that each group looks at each other and tries to keep them from getting fat, lazy, indifferent and evil. And it’s up to citizens to watch the government for there is no government that deserves our complete trust. There is no school system that deserves our complete trust. There is no church, there is no denomination, there is no group that deserves our complete trust. There is no City Council that deserves our complete trust for all institutions, and all systems are alike. Good citizens challenge them to strive for excellence, to keep up with the times and to make room for the creative, the innovator and the dreamer, to be flexible. Jesus said, “The way is hard that leads to life.” 

And one of those enticing roads on the road to life is mediocrity. If you as an individual are content with second best, if you are content with being mediocre, and if you allow our systems to be content with mediocrity, you will miss life.

© 1976 Douglas I. Norris