“Name Your Life Manasseh”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
August 24, 2014
Kyndall Rae Rothaus
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
Joseph had two sons. He named them Manasseh and Ephraim, and here’s why:
The name Manasseh: “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house”
The name Ephraim: “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my misfortunes”
Manasseh, from a Hebrew word meaning making to forget, only Joseph did not really forget, did he? The minute he is reunited with his brothers, it is clear he has kept his past in his heart all along. He remembered everything. So what did it mean to name his son Manasseh? What did it mean to “forget”?
This week as I was reading the book The Wounded Healer, I read about a man in the hospital, about to undergo an operation. He was afraid to die, but he was also afraid to keep living, for there wasn’t much waiting for him the other side of surgery. When they put him under, he simply failed to wake up from anesthesia. Nouwen described the tragic event this way, “Instead of a man filled with love and hate, desire and anger, hope and doubt, he had become a passive victim unable to give any direction to his own history.”
Easily, so easily, Joseph could have been this man. Joseph had every reason to give in and never wake up from his tragedy. Joseph could have just allowed himself to rot at the bottom of a pit or in the back of a jail cell. Why bother? Think of all he’d lost. Think of all he’d left behind. Think of all that had been taken from him. Think of how bleak a future awaited him.
Nouwen says, “Many people are prisoners of their own existence.” But Joseph did not remain transfixed by what he did not have. He “forgot” the life he used to have and looked the life he now had square in the face. See, there is a chasmic divide between resigning yourself to life’s circumstances and accepting them.
Resignation is passive. It is succumbing to defeat. It is giving up. It is despair and it is death, even if your body lives on.
Acceptance is active. It is defying defeat. It is giving yourself over to the flow of a life you didn’t want, and panning its banks for what gold may be there. It is hope, it is tenacity, it is being alive even if your surroundings are morbid and death threats assail you.
No matter where Joseph found himself—the bottom of a pit, a slave in a foreign land, or behind bars—never did he fatigue of thriving. Everywhere he went, he rose. He adapted. He learned the language of his exile, and did not hesitate to speak it.
By the time he rose all the way to the top some 13 years later, having defied every obstacle in his way, he named his son Manasseh. Not, I think, because his sudden fortune made him forget his misfortune. Not, I think, because he ever forgot any of it. But because he “forgot” in that he never wallowed in what was lost but entered what was with courage and integrity.
His second son, he named Ephraim, for in hindsight he could see what gifts had found him, despite all that had been lost.
This is not to say Joseph bypassed grief. He weeps, weeps loudly, weeps violently, weeps often. He cries more than almost any other character in Scripture. He is a man of unquestionable strength and a man of undeniable tenderness. The strength of Joseph does not lie in his capacity to push past his emotions and override his feelings. The strength of Joseph is the bigness of his heart that he refuses to shrink from.
No man or woman can lead, truly lead, without heart and without experience. Joseph faced his terrors, and thus he knew things that the carefully-protected never know. He could lead a nation out of famine because he knew the terrain of famine so intimately in his own soul. He repeatedly refused his brothers’ offers to become his slaves, because he knew the pain of slavery well enough not to wish it on anyone, even his enemies. When his brothers approach him manipulatively in today’s story, Joseph is certainly smart enough to detect their scheme, but Joseph also sees past their plots to their fears. His first response is “Do not be afraid,” and then again he says, “Have no fear.” How could he so quickly see past their actions and address their hearts? Because he was a man so thoroughly acquainted with fear himself he could smell it, and he was a man so committed to reconciliation he met fear with compassion and terror with kindness, which, it turns out, is what most people are looking for. A safe space to bring their fear.
Could it be this is what “leadership” is? Not having all the best ideas and getting people to agree with you, but walking life’s difficult path with an open heart and steadfast integrity so that you’ve blazed a trail others can follow and so that everyone you meet who is wrestling a darkness is a person you can understand and truly see.
Joseph was always interpreting. Interpreting dreams, interpreting circumstances, interpreting people. This is how he led. Not by vying for control or scrambling to the top but by paying very close attention to life, to his own emotions, to his fellow humans.
God blessed this, tremendously. But is didn’t always seem like blessing. Quite the contrary. It often looked like a new disaster every time Joseph turned around. But now, nearing the end of his story, he can say, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”
I have no doubt this was not something Joseph could have said decades earlier. It didn’t seem like God or God’s good intentions were involved at all most of the time. But later—much later—it started to come together, that God was at work even in the most dire of times, and God wasn’t just fiddling around on the peripheral either. God was opening the way for huge graces . . .
Just think how dysfunctional those Abrahamic descendants have been—generation by generation we witness deceit, betrayal, violence, and revenge. Or, look back even farther to the beginning of Genesis, and right out of the gate in the very first family we’ve got brothers who kill each other. Cain murders Abel. If you consider the book of Genesis as a complete story in and of itself, with Joseph as the ending, Joseph represents the great reconciliation after generations of turmoil. Joseph breaks the cycle. Joseph brings reconciliation. Joseph embodies mercy. Joseph completes the narrative and tells us that no matter the volume of violences accrued, another way is imaginable, and a peaceful ending is not outside the realm of possibility. Joseph is Good News to a broken and splintered family.
But it’s not just this family, is it? Joseph is Good News to a whole nation and a foreign nation at that, and he is Good News to every tribe and tongue that comes to share his grain. Remember Hagar? The Egyptian whom Sarah cast out, but God remembered? The one who saw and named God? And now Joseph is in her homeland, seeing God too and continuing God’s care for the Egyptians. It was never just about Abraham and Isaac, and Joseph reminds us this is so. God is for the whole human family.
So is this all to say the suffering was necessary? Pit, prison, being treated as property—these were needed to make Joseph who he was? God caused such pain so that provision would be possible later?
I think causality is the wrong lens through which to watch these events unfold. This story isn’t about determinism. It’s about redemption. This story records the power of a redemption so great that in hindsight you wouldn’t give up your suffering even if you could. It isn’t about God’s will; it’s about God’s grace that transform any evil into something miracle. Determinism makes it sound as if human beings had to do evil in order for God’s plan to unfold, which would be a contradiction of God’s character. Redemption tells us that no matter how human beings transgress and violate one another, God’s intention for good can triumph over our intentions for evil.
When Joseph’s brothers come bowing down before him, surely he remembered his dream from nearly 40 years before where the sun and moon and stars bowed before him. His dream had come true, but unlike the cocky teenager who may have gloated in the dream so long ago, now it’s fruition makes Joseph weep. He doesn’t want the bowing, the scraping, the servitude. He wants a healed family, and yet, he can simultaneously see how all this estrangement was useful in the end for saving a whole nation of hungry people.
It reminds me of a Robert Frost poem:
A voice said, Look me in the stars
and tell me truly, men of earth
if all the soul-and-body scars
were not too much to pay for birth.
There is great potential contained in our suffering. Is suffering necessary in order for certain goods to come about? We may never know. Does suffering have to be a waste? Never. Always buried within our hardship is the opportunity for growth, for healing, and for birth.
Did you notice how, even after last week’s beautiful reconciliation story between Joseph and his brothers, in today’s story, 17 years later, the brothers are still afraid? They do not trust the repair. Today’s story doesn’t appear in the lectionary, but I just had to include it because it is so real life. Reconciliation doesn’t happen overnight. Reconciliation takes time and many encounters.
To be reconciled to God is the same, by the way. It might happen first in a loud awakening, but then it happens again and again and again as you fearfully approach God with some obvious scheme to manipulate the heavens into doing what you want. We are never quite sure God meant it when God said it the first time, “Don’t be distressed or angry with yourself.” We doubt, we question, we scheme. But God is gracious. God speaks kindly, reassures, says, “Do not be afraid.” This happens in many soft and subtle ways; it occasionally comes spectacularly. But the point is that the kindness to us repeats itself again and again, as long as it takes to get our fears to go away, as long as it takes for the reality of reconciliation to take root in our souls, as long as it takes to make us merciful in return.
When I think of Joseph’s frequent tears and steady compassion, I am reminded of another man who wept, wept over Jerusalem, weeps over you. A man who did not resign himself to death, but willing entered it, then rose. A man who reconciled all things. Who broke the cycle of violence. Who showed us another way is imaginable and a peaceful ending possible.
May Christ himself transform our hearts that we might face all life’s challenges with an inexhaustible hope in the power of redemption and with an ever-expanding compassion for our fellow wanderers. May we be overcome with God’s own tears, mercy leaking from our eyes and trickling down our cheekbones, landing on the necks of neighbors and those from whom we’ve been estranged. May we “lead” by faithful interpretation and may we “forget” by remembering God’s unfailing kindness. Amen.