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Based on the Scripture readings:
Proverbs 22
Psalm 125
Mark 7

2018 September 9
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

Phronesis

It has been five weeks since Iíve been in this pulpit on a Sunday and almost three months since weíve enjoyed the senior choir or brought some of our children to worship. Since early August, Iíve taken a trip, my daughter turned eighteen, we thanked God for the life of Janice Fletcher, and Natalie Starkey was married in Cambridge, England. The ground floor renovation is mostly complete, the record heat of last month and last week are temporarily dispersed, and this is my seventeenth September here. Rosh Hashanah begins tonight. In a dozen minutes weíll do something that weíve been doing for 389 years, repeating the Salem Covenant, but Iíll argue that the same things weíve been doing for three thousand years will help us through the remainder of this one and the next one, and while itís nice to ease back into the fall, it may or may not be an easy fall, so Iím about to explore the connection between King Solomon, Henry Kissinger, Aristotle, and what to bring to church this year. Really. And quickly.

And Iíll do it by teaching you a word that some of you know already, and all of you can pronounce if you try, and itís a Greek word thatís not in todayís scriptures, but itís on todayís to-do list, and the word is phronesis. Say it after me: phronesis. Some of you read Greek, and the quick definition is "practical wisdom." And Aristotle was an advocate of phronesis, which was the thing that connected the individual with the larger society, and his own teacher, Plato, said that phronesis begins with an understanding of oneself, and thatís all the citations of ancient philosophers for now, but you get the point. Back to top The big guys with the big ideas were dedicated to the idea of practical wisdom, which is a good thing.

And itís where King Solomon comes in. We donít know if he wrote many of the Proverbs. In fact someone named ben Sirah was involved, but the Proverbs in our Bible reflect practical wisdom. One scholar says that they "work to make sense of reality and human relationships in society." To make sense of reality and human relationships in society. Thatís enough for another sermon. Except when it's basic, such as today. "The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all. Whoever sows injustice will reap calamityÖ Those who are generous are blessedÖ do not rob the poorÖ for the Lord pleads their case." You can see a pattern emerging. Itís old-fashioned truth that doesnít change because conditions or opinions or appetites change.

Which is where Henry Kissinger comes in. Now, Iíve been in the pulpit for thirty years and I think that this is the first time Iíve quoted him. Many in my generation were hurt by him, and we have long memories. But he said something at John McCainís funeral that moved me even as it was going on, so I went back to re-read it. In reference to McCain, Kissinger defined honor. And this is what he said: "Honor Ö is an intangible quality, not obligatory. It has no code. It reflects an inward compulsion, free of self interest. It fulfills a cause, not a personal ambition. It represents what a society lives for beyond the necessities of the moment." So in a sense, honor is phronesis. And itís manifest. Which is where Jesus comes in.

You could explore this gospel for an hour, or I could point out two things in one sentence. Those two things are that in todayís text, Jesus both changes his mind and practices hands-on wisdom. He changes his mind, which few of us like to do, and he uses fingers and spit and prayer to heal someone.

Which leads to my idea about what to bring to church this fall. Especially this fall where a collision of ideas and needs and troubles and hopes takes place. Where a challenge to Christian faith andBack to top questions of ethics in society take place.

So bring phronesis, an open mind, your hands, and the faith that three-thousand-year-old ideas are precisely what we need in order to make sense of reality and human relationships in society. Notice that idea that God pleads the case of the poor and those in need. Notice that injustice is not so nuanced and mysterious as some make it; itís right there in front of us insulting practical wisdom. As the Psalmist says, never follow, never worship, never accept, always resist the "scepter of wickedness," which is still around. Be willing to change your mind. Because what Christians need this year is not another idea or debate or deliberation. We need honor, an inward compulsion free of self-interest. We need phronesis. We need faith, which is not blind nor ignorant nor theoretical. Therefore we need God, and part of our pledge, promise, premise, and presumption is that we find God here together even for all the times we are alone.

So, for today, remember these three things: phronesis, open minds, and willing hands. Aristotle, Kissinger, and Solomon all lead to this. God leads us to tomorrow. Iíll see you next week.

(This sermon is to strengthen the faith of the members and friends, near and far, of Newton Highlands Congregational Church, UCC. It is not for publication or other use.)

 Copyright © 2018 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.

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