Small Towns

A message about Seymour Indiana and Nazareth, a musician and a savior, and the good that can come from literally anywhere on our planet.  

He was born in a small town, six decades ago, population just under 10,000, in the rural area of Seymour Indiana. Referred to as the “Crossroads of America” due to the north/south and east/west railroads that intersect downtown, Seymour is more of a spot to head through than to head to.

And this particular small-town man, at face value seemed, well, nothing special. Born with spina bifida you may not have expected much from this infant later in life. At age 18 he eloped with his pregnant girlfriend, mere months after graduating high school, becoming a young father soon after. While attending a two-year college in another small Indiana town he got knee-deep in drug culture, at times being so high on pot he wouldn’t get off the couch for days at a time. With just this limited information about a town and a person, you may ask yourself, can anything good come out of Seymour?

If this were your friend, or child, or relative it’d be difficult not to judge.

Two millennia ago another man also grew up in a small town, population of just a few hundred, in a rural area of Galilee known as Nazareth. Born of an unwed mother, who gave birth far away from home, in a barn of all places, knowing just this you may not expect too much from him later in life either.

Like other small towns in the area, Nazareth was an agricultural village, and economically dependent on the capital of Galilee. Hebrew scripture never mentions the town, much less connects it with anything special. To the locals it may have seemed rather ho-hum, another small town away from the action of the big city.

In today’s scripture passage, John 1:43-51, where the twelve disciples begin to get gathered, begin to follow, you can hear the assumptions, hear the prejudice clearly about where this man from Nazareth grew up. When the apostle Philip approached Nathaniel and described he who Moses and the prophets wrote of, the promised savior, Nathaniel was less than impressed. Nathaniel replied, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathaniel felt so ho-hum about this town he was willing to write off all its inhabitants completely.

Heck, in my own life I must confess to being guilty of this kind of mindset. When the Southeastern Iowa Synod phoned last Spring about a possible call to a church, in a town called Ames, population about 66,000, initially I didn’t know what to think. When Assistant to the Bishop Pastor Eric Carlson asked me what I knew of Iowa I responded coyly, “beyond the corn? Not much.” I found myself pondering, in those early moments of discernment, some version of the same scriptural question, “can any good pastor gig, for a suburban South Florida guy, come out of Iowa?” At the time I wasn’t so sure.

A Rock Star
So what about that guy from Seymour Indiana? Well, it turns out he was musically gifted, and went on to became a highly successful rock star, singing songs about America’s heartland. His life’s work spans across 23 albums, with 28 million in albums sold. Some of his biggest hits include Hurts So Good, Jack & Diane, Pink Town, and R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A. This musical icon was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, that’s a pretty big deal. He’s gone by several names over the years, and for the past couple of decades is known simply as John Mellencamp.

But Mellencamp isn’t just a talented musician beloved by millions. He is also one of the founding members of Farm Aid, an organization that began in 1985 to raise funds that keep farm families on their land. Farm Aid concerts have remained an annual event over the past 33 years, and, with his help have raised over $50 million dollars.  He came from a small town, and people may have wondered, can anything good come out of Seymour? We know the answer, it’s unequivocal: yes.

A Savior
Turning back to our scripture text, after Nathaniel wondered aloud if anything good could come from Nazareth, the Apostle Phillip responded simply, “Come and see.” And Nathaniel went and saw. There he saw Christ, who found no deceit in Nathaniel. This surprised him, who felt deeply known by someone Nathaniel had only just met. Now seeing Christ in the flesh Nathaniel exclaimed, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God, the King of Israel!” Jesus, who at this point in scripture had performed no miracle, shown no sign, and engaged in no teaching responded you, Nathaniel, “will see greater things than these.”

Come and see, Christ beckons. Come and see.

Speaking personally, after my own “can anything good come out of” moment, I got down to the business of getting educated about all things Ames, all things Bethesda. I spoke with people, ran internet searches, prayed, and imagined with wife Kathi what could be. After getting educated some my initial bias toward going to a town this size began to melt away; I began to see the possibilities more clearly. The call committee said, in their own way, “come and see” inviting the two of us to do just that. So this past June we went, soaking up as much as we could over the course of three days learning about this town, this church.

While visiting we found much to love in what, to us, is a small town, tho admitted you may not agree on that particular label – I suppose that depends on where you’re from 😊

So we packed our stuff, kids and pooch and moved to this small town, and these several last months have been wonderful.

So often we find ourselves making snap judgments about people, and places, based on our own bias, our own stereotypes, our own limited information. You’ve heard my confession, please forgive me, people of Ames, I love ya. We each have our own challenges in this department.

Heck, in the past two days our national dialogue has pivoted to this exact topic. It’s caused us to pause, reflect, and dialogue on something akin to these three questions:

Can anything good come out of Haiti?
Can anything good come out of El Salvador?
Can anything good come out of Africa?

As followers of a God that created each of us in God’s likeness, the answer is obvious. As followers of a Savior raised in a small town, a Savior that taught us to care for those society treats as less than, over and above all else, we know the answers to these questions.
It is unequivocal: YES.

But to arrive at that kind of conclusion requires something of you.

To experience the brilliance of John Mellencamp, you can’t just look up his birthplace and call it a day. You have to come and see, and listen to the music. You’ll be glad you did.

To experience what’s so great about Ames, and about Bethesda Lutheran, you can’t rely on a joke about corn. Kathi and I had to come and see, to talk and to tour, to learn and to dream. And we are so glad we did.

To experience the transformational beauty that Christianity offers, you can’t rely on cultural assumptions of what our faith is, or isn’t, and simply tag it onto a political or social platform. The beauty of our faith requires we come and see, read, learn, worship, break bread together and participate in the life of the church. It asks us to go and do, here and throughout the world, as Christ has modeled so well. It asks us to then to share, to converse, to invite others, asking them to also come and see, to experience this transformational beauty for themselves.

Before we close I’d like you to take a listen to a favorite Mellencamp song of mine, Small Town. As you listen, consider the small town Jesus came from, and the stereotypes and challenges he encountered throughout his ministry. Then consider the town you come from, either big or small, and the challenges and bias from others you may have had to endure as you grew up. And then consider, in your town, how you can ask others to come and see Jesus, right alongside you, and how you can encourage them to experience this transformational beauty for themselves.

Click on the YouTube link for the full video and then read select lyrics below.

Well I was born in a small town
And I live in a small town
Probably die in a small town
Oh, those small communities

Educated in a small town
Taught the fear of Jesus in a small town
Used to daydream in that small town
Another boring romantic that’s me

No I cannot forget where it is that I come from
I cannot forget the people who love me
Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town
And people let me be just what I’m meant to be

God is perfectly capable of honoring ordinary people from apparently insignificant places. And God is perfectly capable of doing amazing things with those people. And that, when you are open to it, certainly includes you.  Amen.


4 thoughts on “Small Towns

  1. Hi! This is Diane Stewart (Susan Brock’s mother). I’m a good old Episcopalian and love reading your sermons. Ames is lucky to have you. Glad you settled in a small town. I went to a two room school while growing up in a small town, and went to town hall meetings. Wouldn’t have had it any other way. God bless you all!

    1. Hi Diane, thanks for the kind words! Ames is a great town, we’re pretty lucky to have landed here 🙂 Three cheers for Episcopalians and small towns, we miss the Brock crew, had a few years of fun in Wellington with them. Blessings!

  2. We are very glad to you, Pastor Arnold and your family with us! (I told you we made many trips to Valpo when my sister, later the ALC’s first woman pastor, but then a No. Synod deaconess. ) I grew up in Des Moines but then moved to Mason City and taught in some small towns. When my husband and I had an opportunity to move, we hoped his new job would take us to Ames or Iowa City.

    Our son and grandson do live in Florida – in Atlantic Beach and we were down there in Dec. A change of 80 degrees! But, after 48 years, I still love Ames and Bethesda!

    1. Ahhhh Atlantic Beach Florida…we used to live 10 minutes from there! Another great downtown, plenty of shops and things to do, very walkable. Glad you’re able to get down there to visit, great spots. Thank you for the kind words, and yes, we’re thrilled to be here in Ames, three cheers for college towns that inspire!!

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