Music Sunday and Hope

a sermon by the Rev. Jill Cowie


This Music Sunday there will be a performance of Daniel Pinkham’s Christmas Cantata and a sermon on Hope by Rev. Jill Cowie

Brian D. McLaren writes, “Politicians compete for higher offices, business tycoons scramble for bigger pieces of the pie, armies march and scientists study, preachers preach, and laborers sweat. But in that silent baby, lying in the humble manger, there pulses more potential power and wisdom and grace and aliveness than all the rest of us can imagine. Come listen as our choir lifts this truth in melody in this most beautiful cantata that will be embellished with advent readings and a sermon on hope.

The Sermon

Dan Pinkham, the composer of this Cantata spent his life putting to music the hope he heard in the Psalms and the Gospels, and in the hope of the Christmas story. This Cantata invites you into this ageless story to discover where the light of wonder, courage, risk, and open-heartedness are breaking into the dark corners of your life. To listen to how hope is reforming in your heart to glorify all that is good.

Dan took the mystery of the Christian faith seriously, a mystery that holds the Great Surmise, that at the heart of all creation lies a good intent, a purposeful goodness, from which we come, by which we live our fullest, to which we at last return. And that this- this deep well of purposeful goodness, is the supreme reality of our lives, and the seedbed of hope.1 Dan once wrote a poem in which in his own words he asked God “to make my life your symphony, to harmonize me with your spirit .”2 On his deathbed as his friends were standing in his bedroom, they mentioned a few of his recordings and when someone mentioned the Christmas Cantata, Dan roused himself from half sleep and said “its out of print, like me.” I think not Dan, not while we are here to sing, play and hear your music, and share the stories of hope you awaken in our hearts, stories that make our lives a symphony. This homily on hope offers a few of these stories.

I begin with Jan’s, the author of the readings we heard today. She spends her time giving form to the Christmas story in her art and poetry. You can see her art at It seemed fitting to match her words with Dan’s music. Jan learned a lot about hope after her husband died during advent three years ago, after what was thought to be a routine surgery. She and her friends kept a hopeful vigil as they waited for him to gain consciousness. After he died, she wondered what was the purpose of hoping when hope comes to such a pass? Her understanding of hope unraveled but with time as she sat with what was broken, she began to imagine how the pieces could connect in a new way. That’s when Jan realized how stubborn hope is, how enduring. She writes, “I learned that hope lives in me like a muscle that keeps reaching and stretching when I do not will it, persisting in the constant intake and release of breath kindling a luminous way, carrying my tender heart like a constellation singing to a day that will not fail to come.”

Her words remind me of how my daughter’s college friend Jenny once sat with what was broken until her shattered hope came together in a new way. Last summer, Jenny’s sister Angie died. I met Angie in May at graduation, her purple hair matching the color of her dress and her personality. Angie had suffered for years with manic depression, so much so that her illness had become her mother’s primary focus for all of Jenny’s childhood. Angie had just begun to do better, she was living at home, and it was the fluke combination of her mental health meds with a Lyme’s disease medicine that proved to be too much for Angie’s heart. My daughter arrived a day early for the funeral becoming the necessary witness to the family’s grief. Immediately after the service, Jenny and Angie’s dad became mysteriously ill. His diagnosis was “a failure to thrive.” He spent months in the hospital with his wife by his side everyday. That’s when Jenny told my daughter, in the midst of all the uncertainty, that her dad’s sickness was God’s way of healing because it brought her parents together in way she had never witnessed. Hope is the coming apart and coming back together, when we sit with what is broken, and begin to imagine how the pieces connect in a new way.

The prophet Isaiah speaking for God like all good prophets said “Listen carefully, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear and come to me, listen so that you may live.” When asked what hope looks like, Jan Richardson, inspired by Isaiah imagines a table; a place where conversations are long, where differences are savored, listened to, learned from, where sustenance is offered and manna found. As we enter more deeply into Advent ask yourself in the weeks to come where you have found a table of hope, a meal where hope took tangible form so real you could taste it, and feel it sustain you.

Ask others, complete strangers even for their story too, maybe give witness to the worst of their sorrow, the tempest of their anger and their smallness in their fear. For when you see, says Isaiah “you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you.” My daughter gave witness to Jenny’s grief, and Jenny called my daughter to her table of hope. Its just a beginning for my daughter, she was at first perplexed by Jenny’s response, saying to me, “it was just an illness, it wasn’t God.” But I can tell, Jenny opened a door in my daughter’s heart to the wonderment of faith, and the sustaining power of hope. But hope will ask thing of you says author Barbara Kingsolver, “you may as well know, once you own hope, it needs endless repair, rubber bands, crazy glue, tapioca, the square of the hypotenuse. Nineteenth century novels, heartstrings, and sunrise: all of these are useful. Also feathers.” She adds, “To keep it humming, sometimes we have to stand on an incline, on a line we make ourselves to draw our eyes and hearts towards a more whole future, an incline that propels us more deeply into this day, where God, love, all that is good, waits for us to work now towards our imagined world.”3 This year, this day, this moment, may we work towards that whole world. May we walk the way of hope with the stars blazing in our bones.

  1. Carl Scovel, Unitarian Universalist Humanist Voices, chapter 1
  2. Email, Carl Scovel, December 2017
  3. Barbara Kingsolver, Commencement or