Hebrew Bible Text:Isaiah 42:1-9
42 Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
5 Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
6 I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
7 to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
8 I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
9 See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
With his frizzy hair pulled into forward-protruding spikes and his goggle-size glasses, Max Pauson resembles one of the futuristic comic-book characters he admires and draws. Ebullient and eager to show a sketchbook filled with startling portraits, he seems to have identity to spare.
But this promising art student’s strong sense of self was hard-earned. It was forged in an unstable, emotionally wrenching childhood and, in an odd detail that might serve as a metaphor for his struggles, it comes after 19 years of life without a legal name.
His birth certificate read only “(baby boy) Pauson.” Name to come.
His father had disappeared. His mother — in his words, “a pack rat who takes a really long time to decide on anything” — did not pick a first name at the hospital in San Francisco in 1990. And she never followed up, leaving him in a rare and strange limbo.
While Mr. Pauson was long aware of the blank spot in his identity, he never quite had the time or means to correct it. He lived with his mother in a house that sometimes lacked electricity. He spent time in foster care and returned to live with his mother in homeless shelters and in public housing. Finally, at 15, he ran away to live with friends’ families.
In an era when identities and backgrounds are scrutinized more than ever, he still managed to get into schools, though he never tried to obtain a driver’s license.
“Sometimes I thought it was kind of cool, like the Man With No Name in ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,’ ” he said last week in his subsidized apartment here, which is provided by a group that helps former foster-care children. “But can you imagine how hard it was to fly without an official ID?”
From childhood he was referred to simply as Max, after his mother, Maxine. In flights to and from San Francisco to visit his girlfriend, he said, he learned to go to the airport an extra hour early, showing a school identification card with his unofficial name, talking his way onto the plane after agents exhaustively searched through every item he carried.
When Mr. Pauson was in grade school, child welfare officials came to ask him about his mother and conditions in their house. “I didn’t know what to say,” he recalled, only hinting at how torn he felt at the time: “I was a little kid, and my mother was my idol.”
“I was about 13 when I realized that my mother had problems of her own that weren’t my fault,” he said, and a few years later “I knew I couldn’t stay at home anymore.”
He immersed himself in comic books, animation and fantasy. Dr. Seuss is a hero, and he later devoured the Harry Potter and C. S. Lewis Narnia books.
“I always used art as an escape,” he said. He said he was a tormented outcast in middle school, but once he entered San Francisco’s School of the Arts, a magnet school where nonconformity was valued, “I finally felt comfortable being myself.”
“It was kind of like Hogwarts,” he said of the high school. “The teachers were all real characters.”
Even so, he did not always fit in smoothly, said Thomas Morgensen, one of his art teachers there.
“When he arrived, he was wired and not real focused,” Mr. Morgensen said. “He was well liked, but some of the teachers had a hard time dealing with his energy level.”
He often cut classes, too. But Mr. Morgensen and others saw that he was serious about his work.
Mr. Pauson’s portfolio won him a full scholarship to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He was also accepted by Hillsides Youth Moving On, a nonprofit group that provides subsidized housing to former foster youths, along with counseling, job aid and life skills that many never picked up. He bicycles the five miles from the Hillsides apartment complex to school.
His artwork, exhibited recently in Los Angeles and on his Web site, maximusquack.blogspot.com, includes energetic portraits and humorous takes on popular musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holiday and the duo Gnarls Barkley, all done in a cartoonish style that Mr. Morgensen praised as “very controlled, but in his own crazy manner.”
The Hillsides program requires that residents take a job — part time if they are in school — and Mr. Pauson found one teaching art to children that required a thorough background check. His legal void caught up with him..
Hillsides found a lawyer who helped him create an official identity with the weighty name he had imagined for himself as a child: Maximus Julius Pauson.
When the big day came last year, it was an anticlimax. After six months of paperwork and waiting by Mr. Pauson, a judge hurriedly stamped “a flimsy piece of paper,” he said. “It wasn’t at all like the scene in ‘Roots’ when the father holds up his baby to the sky and says his name.”
Still, he added, “The whole world changed for me.”
Maximus Julius Pauson’s whole wolrd changed with him officially receiving a name. It is a story that reminds us that names can be important not just for record keeping, but for who we are. The biblical story about the baptism of Jesus reminds us that, like Jesus, in baptism we are also given a name that matters: “beloved.”
Interestingly, there has been debate about the significance of this passage (and those like it in the other Gospels), since their incorporation into the New Testament. Some feel that because Jesus was sinless, he didn’t need to be baptized, as they understand Baptism primarily as the washing away of original sin, and so have found this story somewhat confusing. Others are troubled by Jesus “submitting” to John to be baptized. And, indeed, it appears John had the same trouble, questioning Jesus’ actions. Despite these questions and objections, I think this passage is both important and timely because it helps us recover and reclaim baptism as a dynamic, present-tense activity rather than being seen as a quant ritual or ceremony.
Yes, Baptism washes away sin. Moreover, Holy Baptism promises ongoing forgiveness of sin and relationship with God. And this is both important and central to our understanding. But baptism also provides something more: a name – Beloved – and with that name, an identity – child of God, one to whom God is unfailingly committed. And that name and identity has never been more important.
We are at a time and place where so many would like to identify and define us by many, many names:
Democrat or Republican,
conservative or liberal,
American or foreigner,
gay or straight,
rich or poor,
Black or White,
and the list goes on.
Additionally, we are also and increasingly named and defined by the products we use or stores at which we shop. Nike, Apple, BMW, Tiffany, Hallmark – these are not just company names, but lend a particular sense of self, and increasingly the brand labels on our shirts, shoes, cars, and computers convey a great deal of our identity. As one article on branding puts it:
For people who aren’t deeply religious, visible markers of commercial brands are a form of self-expression and a token of self-worth, just like symbolic expressions of one’s faith, according to new research by a Duke University marketing professor and colleagues in New York and Tel Aviv.
Which is why it’s so important to be reminded this week of the importance of remembering our primary identity as “child of God” and how in Baptism God named – and continues to name us – as “beloved.” It’s not that all these other names are worthless; some of them may be quite important to us. Rather, it’s that while all these other names, affiliations, and identifications may describe us, the dare not define us, as only the name we receive in Holy Baptism grants us the life we enjoy in Christ.
Names are powerful. Notice that in the very next verse after our reading (4:1), Matthew records that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested. This happens only after he has been baptized and named. Similarly, when we remember we are God’s beloved children, we are far more able to flourish among the swirl of names, identities, and values that compete for our attention and allegiance. In short, Baptism matters because it tells us who we are by reminding us whose we are: God’s beloved child.
Most pastors, if they are preaching lectionary texts today, will probably stick to preaching on Jesus’ baptism and avoid a sermon about baptism itself. But I think we have been given a treasure in Baptism that few of them understand and even fewer make use of, and so I want to remind you that remembering our baptism should help us claim and live into this wonderful inheritance.
Names are powerful: they convey identity, purpose, authority, and more. And we have been given an awesome family name. We are God’s beloved children, and each time we wash, each time we are near water, each time we celebrate another’s baptism, we remember that name and are renewed in faith, hope, and courage.
If our name is Maximus Julius Pauson, and a judge hurriedly stamped “a flimsy piece of paper,”
Or it was like the scene in ‘Roots’ when the father holds up his baby to the sky and says his name.
Or our name is said when we were baptized.
The reality is that The whole world changed!
We are beloved Children of God and part of God’s family.
Commentary provided by David Lose, Scott Hoezee, Warren Carter and Erik Eckholm.