given on Sunday, August 21, 2011

Apple or Mustard Seed


            Suddenly, summer is over.  School supplies fill the store shelves and now the halls are filling up with students—checking lockers, peeking into rooms, running into old teachers and friends.  Just walking through the halls and peeking in the rooms, the longtime symbol of school appears—the Apple.

A bright red, seasonally correct fruit, the apple has long signaled the  opening of  the school year.  Not only as a healthy fruit in sack lunches, but also as a gift for the teacher.  The apples in our trees are ready or nearly so for harvesting and we are reminded how fruitful the year has—or has not—been.

Even though Jesus used the mustard seed as a symbol of faith and its power to reproduce, consider the apple for us.  As you open up the apple, there are those little brown seeds.  Each one holds the promise of future trees, future apples, and future seeds.  The life cycle all found right in the center of the apple in that seed.

When Jesus told the parable of the mustard seed, he was trying to assure us that even if we feel our faith is too little, it really is not.  Remember Matthew’s version:

31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.” (the NIV)

Farmers in the Middle East planted mustard during Jesus’ lifetime, and they probably continue considering how much mustard is used around the world on hot dogs and hamburgers to say the least.  So the parable of the mustard seed had a distinct familiarity to those listening.

Now consider the apple seed.  An American icon, the apple is a familiar product from our agricultural regions.  Young children growing up hear the old adage “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”  We offer snacks such as apples and cheese, apples and peanut butter, apple fritters, applesauce, baked apples, fried apples, spicy apples, apple pie, apple cake, and so much more.  We love apples.

Should it be a surprise to us, then, that the story of Johnny Appleseed is frequently the first story young children learn when they begin school?  Surely most of us remember the story of Johnny Appleseed, and I expect many might even know when a teacher used it in class.  The story is found in almost all elementary teacher suggested curriculums.  The education-related companies provide all types of apple images, cut outs, decorations, worksheets, and more.

[Now high school is a different situation.  Not many apples seem to adorn the walls, desks, or bulletin boards in high school, nor are many of the various materials marketed to high schools.]

If we retold the parable of the mustard seed as the parable of the apple seed, would it have a different message?  I do not think so.  The apple seed compared to a fully mature apple tree is indeed small.  Much less, if all the apple seeds in just one apple are counted, consider how many trees might come from one apple.

The story of the how even a little faith can grow and grow and grow into a great and mighty tree does not depend on the physical size of the seed, but the process of growing from a seed to a productive plant of any sort can represent the power of faith.

The folk tale of Johnny Appleseed is familiar.  We have heard it time and time again:  a small man set out on his bare feet to plant apple seeds so everybody could enjoy apples.  That story is retold generation after generation.  The story serves so many purposes for teachers and parents around the country.

Some may think the story is simply a folk tale with little historic value, but start looking and quickly the legend is more, it is the story of an American Christian businessman.  Yes, he did plant apple seeds.  Yes, he did walk around the countryside.  Yes, he did walk barefoot—most of the time.  Yes, he took care of others.  Yes, he is responsible for so many apple orchards.  Yes, he loved animals, children and others—possibly even more than he loved himself.

Now review Luke’s version of the mustard seed parable:

6 He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.  (the NIV)

Picture yourself the first day of school:  the teacher!  You have put up the wall decorations, drawn out a seating chart and written in the names of the students.  Some are brand new so no one has given you any background on the.  Some are long time family names and you are sure you have heard about that one.  Some are simply ghost images in the mind and only meeting them will give an idea of their potential.

The first day of school there is nervousness, but the teacher knows that once the kids start talking about Johnny Appleseed, they will settle down and fall into place, especially after the apple snack planned for a treat.  The kids will turn expectantly to the teacher and want to learn more.

Quite a delightful scenario, but the scene is seldom picture perfect.  The concern then becomes how to make each one of those students—the seeds of our culture—fulfill their potential.  Teachers, even if not publically professing faith, have faith.  Faith in each and every student entering the classroom is critical if teachers are to plant and nurture him or her to maturity and fruit bearing begins.

Returning to Johnny Appleseed’s story we find a much more depth in the historical record of his life than in the folktale.   John Chapman is the historical figure who began planting apple orchards in the Midwestern states east of the Mississippi River.  His approach is a bit different as he really exemplifies the early American businessman.

He actually would walk west, purchase land, plant an apple orchard, hire a caretaker, and move on to do the same thing over again and again.  He would return once every year or two to check on the orchard’s progress, collect the financial prophets, and pay the caretakers.  Leaving to continue his mission.

As school begins this year, teachers are meeting students and deciding how best to meet their needs.  They may not be making business decisions, but the results of the year will provide the business leaders of the future.  Growing apple trees is a time investment, teaching young people is, too.  The faith we have in God is the seed, but our lives are just like the apple trees.

In today’s scripture, Luke 17:7-10, Jesus adds to the mustard seed parable and provides additional guidance in growing our faith.  We are each a type of Johnny Appleseed.  We are each teachers.  We are each the fruit of the trees, too.

Growing our faith is producing the richest crop possible.  It is a crop that provides the most exquisite returns.  The process must survive the years of drought and the years of flooding.  The growth in faith may have insects try to destroy it, but with proper attention the insects can be destroyed.  The hail may fall and strip the plants of leaves, but faith will let new leaves grow.

Johnny Appleseed knew that planting for the future would be a fruitful investment.  Teachers know that teaching the youth is preparing for the future.  Christians know that faith is a seed that will produce rewards.  But a seed, as faith, cannot grow if it is untended.  How fruitful do we want our personal faith to be?  Do we want to be remembered as Johnny Appleseed, or do we want to be known as a shriveled up twig that fails to thrive?


Dear Heavenly Father,

You are the planter giving us a start.

You are the gardener tending to our hearts.


Shower upon us the goodness of the rain.

Shine upon us the glory of Your Son.

Support us during the storms

Feed us with words of encouragement.

You are the teacher giving us a start.

You are the schools tending to our youth.


Share with us the knowledge we need.

Demonstrate the way we are to live.

Make us accountable for rowdy behaviors.

Award us when we do well in our studies.


We strive to be a Johnny Appleseed of faith.           

Take this tiny seed of faith within us

And teach us how to grow it to maturity

And to graduate into your heavenly world.            –Amen

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