Canon Stephen Oliver
Good afternoon, my friends. I am so pleased to be here with you today, and even more pleased that I was unable to accept an invitation to be here two Sundays ago at the height of the snow storm. I have a feeling it would have been an I-Thou experience for me. It is a particular pleasure to be welcomed by Father Grandell, as I have been in absentia by Dean Baxter.
When I received the invitation to this privilege, I was given the Scriptural readings for the service. At first, I was delighted — both the reading from Deuteronomy and the two psalms are very familiar to me. The former is, in effect, the credo of Jewish tradition, recited by traditional Jews at least three times a day. The psalms are from a joyous selection that we recite on festivals and days of thanksgiving. As a result, I have preached those sections many times in my years in the pulpit.
But I was fascinated by the reading from John, especially the very first verse we read. “?unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” I spent some time looking at that verse and at commentaries on it, and I know that in its context, it is understood as a sort of prophetic homily by Jesus. But I offer you the reading of a Jew — a rabbi, no less — on how this verse impresses me. And to do so, I offer this visual aid. This is an apple. And I want to ask a question about the apple. The question is this:
Why is an apple?
Such a question! Why is an apple? Let me explain.
Most of us look at the apple as an end-product. That is to say, a seed sprouts, becomes a sapling, which matures into a tree, which sends forth branches, which produce blossoms which grow into apples. Each year in the fall, the tree delivers more apples. The apple is the end-product of the apple tree.
But I would like you to adjust your thinking just a little bit for a moment. Seeing the apple as the end-product is only one way to look at the process. Suppose you are a weary traveler, walking along a road on a hot summer day. The sun is beating down upon you and you look for a place of shelter from the relentless heat. There is an apple tree, full of leaves and spreading branches. The mature and healthy tree is the desired end product.
Suppose you are a young person in love. It is spring time and you are looking for a way to propose marriage to your beloved. You take a walk in the light of the full moon and suddenly your nose is filled with the fragrance of apple blossoms, the sight of pink and white flowers. The moment is intoxicating and filled with romance. The blossoms are the desired end product.
Or suppose your name was John Chapman. You have a mission to which you devote your entire adult life. You walk through the virgin wilderness which will become Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana in clothes made of sacks and a tin pot for a hat. And you plant orchards and orchards of apple trees covering over 100,000 square miles. People take to calling you Johnny Appleseed. For you, the seeds are the desired end-product.
The end-point of the cycle is an arbitrary determination, one that depends on the perspective of the beholder. But two things are certain.
The first is this: the tree is known by its fruit. We do not call an apple pink-blossom fruit or gnarled-wood fruit, or pulp-around-the-seed. We have apple blossoms on apple trees grown from apple seeds. And the fruit is called simply an apple — no modifying additions are necessary.
The second is this: no matter where we put the end-point, there really is no end-point until the tree dies, and maybe not even then. The cycle continues no matter the fate of any one blossom or branch or seed. The cycle continues, year-in and year-out. Some of the trees Johnny Appleseed planted 150 years ago are still bearing fruit. Some of the fruit put forth by those trees have resulted in seeds that grew into the trees that may have produced the apples you eat.
So I am back to my original question: Why is an apple? What is the purpose of an apple’s existence?
Maybe a little more background is necessary. I want to make a distinction among three states of being: life, death and none of the above. The first two, life and death, are mutually dependent. Something cannot be dead unless it was once alive. And everything which lives — except God — is bound to die. This comes as no surprise to any of you, I hope. Life and death are inextricably bound together. They exist in cycle.
Then there is a state of being which is neither life nor death. Mostly we associate it with things like rocks and metals and water and air, but it can also be time or space. My daughter Julia, who knows about these matters, tells me such things are abiotic — they are without life and without the potential for life.
The activity that most typifies life is change. Life is in a constant state of flux. Sometimes the change is easily observed, and sometimes it is not because it is so slow or hidden from sight. But that which is alive and stops changing dies. It is a fact. Life requires change to remain life.
And, technically speaking, the apple, once plucked from the tree, is no longer alive. The apple itself does not change. The pulp and the stem begin to deteriorate as other living organisms use them as food. But the apple is no longer alive. It looks pretty good for a while, but sooner or later, as you all know, it gets mushy and brown and goopy and smelly — and then it gets thrown into the compost pile or the trash.
But we know this: the apple was once changing, from bud to blossom to little green sphere to big, red, juicy ball. It was once alive. It was never abiotic, and it did not come from something abiotic.
For a short time, the apple reaches its full maturity and it is a thing of beauty and nourishment. But in spite of refrigeration and preservative chemicals and waxes and pesticides that can prolong the amount of time the apple stays intact, the fruit descends into death and decay.
So I am back to my original question: Why is an apple? For what reason does the apple exist?
Perhaps we need a little more background.
You all know what the fruit was that Eve offered to Adam in the Garden of Eden. Centuries of paintings and stories make the apple the forbidden fruit. But the fact of the matter is that nowhere in Jewish literature does the apple appear on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Some of the rabbis speculate that it was the fig, some say it was the citron, some say it was the grape and some say it was wheat because in the garden the wheat stalks grew as tall as the cedars of Lebanon. So what you all know is wrong. Sorry.
Actually, it was the Church which promulgated the story of the apple, persecuting the innocent fruit and making it responsible for the sorry state of the world. But then, back in the Middle Ages, the Church had a habit of doing that. Thank God the world of Christianity has outgrown that tendency.
References to the apple as the forbidden fruit appears in Jewish sources only from those same Middle Ages, and only homiletically.
Instead, the apple appears in a completely different part of the Bible — much closer to the end than the beginning. It has a cameo in the book of Joel, a guest appearance in the book of Proverbs, but an important place in the Song of Songs. “Like an apple tree among the woods is my beloved among the young men.” (2:3)
The apple appears four times in Song of Songs, but this one is the only one you wouldn’t have to explain away to your ten-year-old nephew. It is an endearing image. There, amidst a forest full of pines, cedars and oaks sits a solitary apple tree, a stand-out in every way from the trees which surround it. And what is it that makes the apple tree so special?
One commentator (Metzudat David) suggests that the apple tree is special because it offers shelter early in the spring and fruit late in the fall. He sees the springtime benefit as a metaphor for providing for this world and the autumn harvest as a metaphor for the world to come. He imagines the solitary apple tree in the forest, providing for this world and for the world to come as the story of Israel among the nations.
But I am sure that you know that any number of fruits and vegetables and produce appear in the Bible, many of them as metaphors for all that is good. The Israelites enter a land flowing with milk and honey, filled with barley, wheat, dates, figs, olives, grapes and pomegranates. The citron is the symbol of goodness and fulfillment. And everything from the lowly hyssop grass to the majestic cedars of Lebanon stands for something of ultimate importance in the Bible.
So I ask again: Why is an apple? What is the very purpose of the apple?
Well, let’s add some more background.
The apple and the apple tree turn up quite a bit in the interpretive literature we call the midrash. In one such midrash (Ex R 17:2), the question is asked “why is the Holy One compared to an apple? Just as an apple may appear to be nothing but has both taste and smell, so, too is the Holy One, sweet and full of delights, but appears to be nothing to the idol worshippers who rejected Torah.” Our invisible God, whose presence is as easy to miss as an apple in a barrel, is still the source of wisdom and knowledge, as taste and smell are often known in the midrash. Meanwhile, those who make and worship idols have noses but cannot smell, a mouth that does not function.
The apple is a fruit that is both Divine and human, a place where God and human meet and find much in common. Those qualities of taste and smell, that is, of wisdom and knowledge, of apparent insignificance but ultimate value, of nourishment of body and soul, are among the places we meet God and God meets us.
But I think it is pretty foolish to place such great responsibility on this mere apple.
I keep asking the same question: why is an apple? Perhaps it has come time to offer an answer. And after all this Torah and history, you might be surprised as to where I found it.
Grudgingly, I have become a big fan of John Travolta. It started when he befriended James Cagney late in Cagney’s life, but it was cemented when I accidentally rented the wrong John Travolta movie. I meant to see “Michael,” a silly and sappy film about an angel, but picked up “Phenomenon” instead. See it, in spite of the fact that I am going to ruin a small part of it for you by telling you that Travolta dies in the end. At one point, two small children he has befriended come to realize that he is going to die. And they get very upset, very sad. It is a beautiful country afternoon and the three of them are about to have a snack. Each one holds an apple. And as Travolta’s character George poignantly tries to explain death to these children, he notices the apple he is holding in his hand.
“You see this apple?” says George. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it? I could put it down on the ground there and we could look at it, but sooner or later it would turn brown and mushy and we would have nothing to show for it. The only way for that apple to stay with us in all its beauty is for us to take a bite. Once it is a part of you, you can never lose it.”
If I were you — and I am not — I would hear in this teaching a contemporary communion, the apple, the grain of wheat, as sacrament. I honor that teaching, even as I choose a different teaching.
Sooner than you think will be the season when the apple tree has put forth its blossom. The tree from which the blossom will emerge is rooted and solid. It will remain lush with leaves throughout the summer and urge the tiny green balls that survive the blossoms into plump and inviting fruit. But that apple tree also has a mission — for more trees to spring up, for more apples to grow, so that more people can be nourished. It is a process of harvest and renewal.
Some of us have in our minds an idealized apple, round and red and shiny. Having taken shelter in the shade of the tree, we are grateful and wish to preserve everything about it. Somehow, breaking the skin, breaking the perfection of that apple seems too painful. We wish to freeze it, as if it lived in a still life painting.
Some of us see the abundance of apples on the tree and think to ourselves that there is more than enough to go around, no need to pick one now. Sooner or later, we will get around to having a taste. But by waiting too long, the apple will fall to the ground. Its protective skin will be compromised and the insects and four-legged creatures of the world will consume its nourishing pulp, leaving us hungering and unsatisfied.
Some of us hold the apple and look suspiciously, afraid that a soft spot is lurking beneath the surface, or that the skin conceals a worm, or that it will be too tart or mealy or dry. The fear of what might be underneath holds us back and we stand paralyzed, looking the part, but daring not to taste.
And some of us believe that there is only one chance to enjoy these apples, so we must consume them as quickly and furiously as possible. We do not taste and we do not smell, we simply use them up. The half-eaten detritus and rotting cores will litter the ground around us as we clutch our bellies and complain about the result of our gluttony.
No, this apple, this fruit, this wisdom, this symbol of God, this harvest of our season exists to nourish us, and in so doing, to release the seed that will fall to the earth and bear much fruit for the generations to come. It shows us the product of a good life. But its life has come to an end. Only by consuming it, only by compromising it, does it fulfill its purpose and not wind up squandered.
In my congregation we sing: Torah is a tree of life. And in its season, it puts forth fruit. The fruit is carried by those of us who are nourished by it from land to land, from historical circumstance to historical circumstance, from generation to generation. We carry it not by enshrining it, not by avoiding it, not by wolfing it down, but by our willingness to consume the sweet outsides and reveal the seed within. By planting that seed, we ensure that Torah will grow to nourish others. We become the Johnny Appleseeds of our tradition. And in the process, we nourish ourselves with wisdom and knowledge just the way it was intended.
This congregation is like an apple tree, one which has been cultivated and tended carefully. It has sunk its roots deep and sent forth its branches. It has blossomed and given forth fragrance, it has become lush with green leaves and it has borne fruit. When you gather in this room, as familiar as you are with the prayer book in front of you, you still manage to sing a new song to the Lord. You have a leader who knows which branches to prune and which fruit to harvest.
But that fruit is not the end-product. It is part of the cycle. Left to sit, unchanged and unchanging, it will not long survive. We preserve it not by leaving it untouched, but by taking it in, to reveal the seed of new growth. The apple from our tree is there to nourish us.
Why is an apple? What is the purpose of an apple’s existence? You have patiently waited for the answer, and I will delay it no longer. It is this: to enable me to say, “Yours is the power, O God, Sovereign of the Universe, to create the fruit of the tree,” the tree of the forest, the tree of life, for me to eat. It is to enable me to say, barukh ata h’ eloheinu melekh ha’olam borei p’ri ha’etz. (Eat the apple!)