A Wonderful Story – Br. Nicholas Bartoli

Br. Nicholas Bartoli

Luke 15.1-10

I was born and raised a Roman Catholic, or at least I’m pretty sure the plan was for me to be raised Roman Catholic. When I was still very young I turned away from the church, because parts of my early experience served to alienate me from all things religious or spiritual. But, one thing I do remember enjoying as a child was all the great stories.

Even the gospels considered on their own are filled will wonderful stories about the life and ministry of Jesus, and we know that Jesus himself used stories and parables as one of his primary ways of sharing the good news of God’s Kingdom. Maybe that’s because Jesus grew up formed by the rich tapestry of story and poetry in Hebrew scripture, and maybe it’s because these kinds of stories can offer us so many levels of meaning through which God speaks to us. Today, for example, we heard the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, stories about the joy of finding something lost, some small part of the whole that needs to be recovered and embraced. We’ll begin by looking at the inner meaning, the message leading us to our heart of hearts.

Parables often use a variety of symbols and metaphors to convey this kind of inner meaning, sometimes taking the form of particular numbers. In the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, we’re told it’s not just a herd of sheep or a handful of coins, but 100 sheep, and 10 coins.

In the early church, and in ancient Hebrew writing, the numbers ten and a hundred were associated with a kind of unity or wholeness arising from the many being joined into one. If we’re missing one sheep out of a hundred, then, or one coin out of ten, it’s not just that we’re missing one, we’re losing the integrity of the whole, the perfection that comes from knowing God’s Kingdom in all its fullness.

Gregory of Nyssa, a fourth century theologian, saw the lost sheep as “our lost humanity” brought back to wholeness by the saving power of Christ, the incarnate Word. Likewise, Saint Irenaeus compared the return of the lost sheep as a uniting of earth and heaven, the mundane and the divine, through our restored humanity.

Another early church father, Origen, while commenting on the parable of the coin, compared the inside of the woman’s house to our inner life, the lost coin to the hidden parts of ourselves that when brought to light restore us in God’s image. He writes “She had lighted the lamp and swept out the house, and it was there that she found her silver coin. For your part, if you light your ‘lamp’, if you make use of the illumination of the Holy Spirit, if you ‘see light in his light’, you will find the silver coin in you… [this]… image may indeed be obscured by neglect, but never destroyed by evil. The image of God remains in you always.”

Now, besides this inner meaning, there’s also Jesus’s audience to consider, a group of grumbling Pharisees and scribes. They murmured their sound of complaint and indignation while witnessing Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors, something especially offensive in ancient Israel where food laws separated the properly observant from those considered outcasts.

On one level Jesus challenges the Pharisees to be more inclusive. He’s saying, look, you of all people should be serving those who need it most, bringing those led astray to the mercy and grace of God. If we all truly believe in the saving power of Yahweh shouldn’t we be embracing all lost sheep instead of ostracizing them?

On another level, Jesus probably wants the Pharisees to recognize themselves as being a bit lost. He wants them to see the separation they insist on between themselves and those they exclude as a symptom of the separation in their hearts. Jesus often calls them hypocrites, because with all their focus on cleaning the outside of their immaculate cup, they’re blind to the sin within. So Jesus hopes the parables kindle some recognition in the Pharisees, helping them embrace their own lost coins, the parts of themselves shrouded in darkness, the parts that if kept in shadow only serve to maintain the separation between their innermost selves and God. And, of course, we’re probably meant to understand that we all have a little Pharisee in us, we’re often all too willing to point a finger when we should be looking in the opposite direction.

Another message from these parables comes from an assumption Jesus is making, namely that finding the lost sheep and discovering that lost coin is truly possible, and he wants to share the excitement and joy of this reality with us. It seems so basic we might not even feel we need to be reminded of it. On some level we do acknowledge it, especially when we’re reciting prayers and hymns in church, and yet we often act as if this truth isn’t alive in our hearts. It might look like settling into a sense of helplessness about our own lack of worth, feeling like we’re not really deserving of God’s forgiveness or healing. Or maybe we keep forgetting the true worth of others, especially others we might grumble about, and so we pigeonhole people into convenient boxes, not seeing them as Jesus did, as infinitely beautiful mysteries of God’s love.

I think one of the reasons I fell away from my Catholic roots is that the church of my youth seemed most concerned with fire and brimstone, with pointing a finger at all us horrible sinners, and peddling guilt like candy. You’re only hope, it seemed, was that if you assented to a certain list of beliefs then you had a shot at something better after you die.

Now, it’s true, in one sense, that we live in a fallen world — our tendency to sin and hurtful behavior is fairly obvious, but if that were the only message of the gospels it wouldn’t be much in the way of news, let alone good news.

In trying to describe the essence of the good news, the most crucial piece of being a Christian, Marcus Borg once summed it up with the word “transformation,” transformation of the individual, of communities, and of the world, typically in that order. And he observed that simply believing the right things didn’t seem to have much transformative power. He wrote “It is about a change of heart. It is about the transformation of ourselves at that deep level that shapes our vision (how we see), our commitment (our loyalty, allegiance), and our values (how we live).”

This transformation, this change of heart is an ongoing process, one started by our Beloved God who created us in His image, and the only thing we need to do is surrender to God’s will for us. It does help, though, if only to renew our hope and trust, to be reminded, to remind each other, that transformation is possible, that the one sheep can be found, that the one coin is hidden somewhere in the house just waiting to be brought to light with joy.

The resurrection promised us after dying to whatever keeps that one coin hidden in the shadows, the promise of eternal life, of seeing ourselves and the world in the light of Christ, is not reserved for what happens to us after we die. The way of Jesus means taking each passing moment as an opportunity for surrender to God’s Love. And as we practice allowing ourselves to simply rest in Christ’s embrace, we begin to realize that this joy Jesus talks about isn’t just an emotion we feel, it’s who we’re meant to be. When we sweep our inner house and find our true selves, seeing ourselves as God sees us, we understand that we are the peace and joy Jesus wants to share in the world.

You know, I often feel that God must love stories, too, and that the Holy One, our Beloved Creator, is most attentive to our stories, and to our collective story. Like any good story, there’s multiple levels of meaning to find, to live through, and to grow with, and when we let God be the author, we can be sure the story brings transformation, healing our separation from God, from ourselves, and from each other. Some days it’s easy to forget that this story is true, that in this life we’ve been given all things are possible with God. We can find those lost coins deep within us and be made whole again, becoming a source of peace and joy for all the other lost sheep out there. And our story as Christians isn’t over as long as there’s one lost coin to find, one lost sheep to welcome back into the fold.

The way of Jesus was never meant to be easy, but that’s our calling, to courageously surrender to God in each moment. And so for the sake of Christ we become the transformation we seek, sharing peace and joy in our communities, and inspiring the world to a new story, the story of God’s beautiful Kingdom.

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  1. Pedro on May 30, 2022 at 03:29

    Thank you very much, Brother Nicholas, for the wonderful sermon! I have always loved the word “transformation”. Yes, we are called to that, to surrender to the Lord so that He may act in and through us. I too am a former Catholic. I am now an Episcopalian. I love the Episcopal Church and am so glad I came across it as an adult. I feel very comfortable in this wonderful church.

  2. Dan Warren on December 18, 2021 at 07:15

    I echo the comments above, and add- now five yrs after he sermon- thank you. The transformation always begins afresh.

  3. Ruth West on January 29, 2019 at 20:01

    Dear Brother in Christ, how much I enjoyed your sermon! Thank you. It bears reading again and again. I pray that the transformation of heart is still happening in my own heart and life. I know it is an ongoing process, regardless of age or condition. I treasure the sermons of all you brothers. Continue in Jesus’ precious name. REW

  4. Frankie Pang on January 26, 2019 at 15:26

    I always enjoy these sermons but Brother Bartoli’s sermon really resonated with me. Thank you!

  5. Jeanne DeFazio on January 26, 2019 at 10:59

    Dear Brother in Jesus! These reflections and devotional have been a major spiritual force to begin each day. Thanks for pointing out spiritual truth thru the parable of the lost coin! Reaching out in prayer this am for the lost coin in myself and everyone else thanks to your great insight.

    • SusanMarie on January 27, 2019 at 07:45

      Jeanne, I like that you wrote “Reaching out in prayer…for the lost coin in myself and everyone else…”. The “everyone else” part is really important. If I have a special coin in my heart/soul, then everyone else does too and I need to look for that as eagerly as I want to find it in myself. Thanks for the reminder!

  6. Sally Baynton on January 26, 2019 at 09:09

    I am prepared to sweep “my house” after this beautiful homily and look for any lost coins. I, too, love your writing and the picture is new, too. Thank you, Brother Nicholas, for your words today and always!

  7. SusanMarie on January 26, 2019 at 06:58

    Br. Nicholas,
    This message melted my heart this morning, and in this vulnerable space (as always) I am more able and open to being transformed by Love. I pray for this — long for it — every morning, but I know that in some way I need to get in touch with my True Self to allow transformation. It may be meditation, centering prayer, a good message, a good sermon, deep and honest prayer: something that melts or breaks open my heart to let God in. Your sermon did that for me today. Now it’s time to turn on the lamp and sweep my house to find the lost coin that is surely within me. Blessings to you this day and always.

  8. marie on August 12, 2018 at 13:23

    Dear Br. Nicholas Bartoli ~
    I was drawn to your writing this morning, I believe, by the Holy Spirit. I LOVE your writing style. It is endearing. And I LOVE your obvious understanding that our “Beloved Creator” longs for our transformation in order that we might discover His wondrous plans and beneficial love. Eternal Life begins the moment we invite Yeshua into our earthly experience, the moment we ask Him to be our Lord Redeemer. He deposits enrichment. He imparts the wonder of His presence. We have the hope of heaven, yes, and yet, we also have the glorious, remarkable gift of joy-in-believing now! “For your part, if you light your ‘lamp’, if you make use of the illumination of the Holy Spirit, if you ‘see light in his light’, you will find the silver coin in you…”
    I love the way you illuminate G-d’s story of Love!
    I am a writer in my 70’s who particularly longs for a writerly fellowship with other believing writers. I am called to write G-d’s heart and light. I see that very particular unique quality in your writing. It has to do with your heartfelt understanding of G-d’s love and compassion.
    Thank you. May you be wonderfully built up and encouraged in Yeshua today. marie

  9. marta engdahl on August 7, 2018 at 00:34

    Thank you so much for this gentle, kind, wise “sermon”. It will help me to become more open and generous. I love the stories, and your recounting of stories of and from our childhood. They can and will open my heart to become more transformed to love, and generous to give.

  10. Jack Zamboni on August 2, 2018 at 08:05

    Thank you. Your words remind me of the path of transformation I trust I am called to.

  11. James Watts on August 2, 2018 at 07:17

    Another, beautiful meditation, stoic, lyric, filled with sagacity and unity, and above all truth. Bless you, Br. Nicholas.

  12. Karen Hall Wright on August 2, 2018 at 07:03

    Brother Nicholas. This sermon\homi!y is so well put. Thank you. Many thoughts and insights to digest and I suspect I will reference this writing often.

  13. Margaret Dungan on May 17, 2017 at 16:03

    Thank you Br. Nicholas,,

    These words are surely an answer to prayer.
    Thank you, thank you.


  14. Polly Chatfield on May 17, 2017 at 09:12

    Thank you, dear Nicolas. Your gentle and loving words help me feel the gentle love God has for all of us. “God’s way is not of force”, as the hymn says. You make that real by the very way you speak.

  15. Elizabeth Hardy on May 17, 2017 at 09:10

    Thank you Br. Nicholas. This is a great meditation for me as I prepare myself for an interim ministry in a parish which has been a difficult one in the life of the Diocese. It has given me an excellent lens through which to imagine their future.

  16. Diane on May 17, 2017 at 08:42

    Oh my! This so gladdened my heart this morning. I don’t attend an Episcopal church at this time (but have in the past) and take these teachings to heart. For the past 5 years I’ve attended People’s Church in Bemidji, MN. The mission (year round) is to shelter the homeless, cloth and feed the hungry, tend the sick, visit the prisoner, and welcome the stranger. Get’s a little messy at times! There are a few other Episcopalians who are members and Bob sometimes jokes about being surrounded by us, but every Sunday when he opens up the Book, it’s all about walking in the way of love.

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