In April of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Birmingham to prepare for what the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had dubbed Project Confrontation, or Project C for short. The hope was that by marching peacefully and facing the predictably brutal law-enforcement response of fire hoses and dogs, King and his allies could draw further attention to the evils of segregation and racism, and increase the pressure on the government to address the crisis.
It was a classic application of the tactic of non-violent disobedience that had been so successful in the Montgomery Bus boycotts. The question now was whether it could be effective in Birmingham, seen by many as the city where segregation and racism were the most firmly entrenched.
When Dr. King came to Birmingham in preparation for these protests, the local authorities announced that they would crack down hard on anyone who protested. They issued an injunction ordering that no-one march, and they raised the cost of bail for those who would be arrested from $200 to $1500.
In remembering that trip, Vincent Harding, a friend of King’s, said that the injunction had a chilling effect on the organizers. And many wanted to call off the actions all together. The leaders of the Civil Rights movement, Harding recalls, were all gathered in a motel room wresting with what to do. And to make matters a bit more complicated, it was only a couple of days before Easter.
Now the thing you have to remember is that most of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, including Dr. King, were members of the clergy. And most, including Dr. King, were serving in congregations at the time.
And suddenly, in the face of their fear, they started coming up with as many reasons as they could why the protests would not be a good idea. And King’s own father pleaded with him to call of the protests and return home to be with his congregation for Easter morning.
Now, I can tell you that as a minister, it is pretty ingrained in me, that I need to be here on Easter. It’s one of the biggest days of the year.
And King’s father said the same thing. You have to be home at Ebenezer. That is where you belong.
And the story goes that King looked around at the crowd, and told them he needed to pray about it.
And he withdrew into the bedroom.
And when he came out, he was no longer wearing the trademark black suit and tie of a pastor who would be headed to a beautifully decorated sanctuary for Easter morning.
He came out wearing blue jeans. Which he only ever wore, when he knew he was going to jail.
A few thousand years earlier a man named Jesus walked out into the wilderness to meet a eccentric and controversial teacher named John, who ate bugs, and clothes himself in camels hair.
John spent his days calling on his people to repent, to change their ways. And he would plunge them beneath the murky waters of the Jordon as a sign that what was old in them had truly passed away, and they had taken on new life.
And so Jesus went out to see this man, to receive this sign of baptism. And as Jesus’ body was plunged beneath the murky waters of that river, the heavens tore open, and when Christ’s face was lifted from those waters a voice from heaven called him beloved.
This baptism was the beginning of Jesus’ ministry on Earth. It was the moment that he went from being an unknown man from Galilee, to being the teacher, the healer, the miracle-worker, the savior.
And so we have carried forward this practice, this baptism.
Of course, I opt for the robe and stole rather than the camel hair tunic. And we have gone with this simple font, since the nearest river is a bit up the road.
But what we do here is the same thing that John did for Christ, and that generations of Christians have come to the edge of these waters to do.
We wash away all that is old, and we take on a new life with Christ.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul says it this way: “As you were baptized into Christ, you have clothed yourself with Christ.” You have clothed yourselves with Christ.
I love that image. Clothed with Christ. Clothed with Christ.
By the way, Dr. King did indeed go to jail that night.
Almost the moment he walked out onto the streets in his blue jeans he was picked up and hauled away. Thrown into a Birmingham Jail.
It was a janitor in the jail who smuggled him scraps of paper so that he could write. His now famous letter from a Birmingham Jail, in which he penned these lines that echo across the decades since that time:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
I tell families when I meet with them about a baptism that I do not believe baptism suddenly changes anything about their child. I believe that it is our opportunity to celebrate what is already true, that God has always loved them and will always love them, no matter what.
Baptism doesn’t change that basic truth of who we are, under it all, God’s beloved.
And yet. The baptismal vows that we affirm as adult members of this church do mean something. It is not so much about changing who we are deep down, but about how we choose to clothe ourselves. We clothe ourselves with Christ.
And it is choice that we make not just once, but a chose we make a thousand times every day. To walk around clothed with Christ, means that in the way that we treat one another, care for the sick and the poor, and advocate with the oppressed, we are choosing to bear God’s image into the world just by the way we are.
Being a follower of Christ is not like carrying around a membership card that we simply pull out when we want to claim the privileges.
Being a following of Christ means clothing ourselves in Christ, making a choice, for all the world to see, each and every day to live the way that Christ called us to live, even when it is hard, even when it costs us.
And sometimes that means putting on our Sunday best and coming into a beautiful sanctuary to sing God’s praises.
Sometimes it means tying on an apron, to cook a meal. Or putting on a pair of worn-out boots for a hard day of work.
And yes sometimes it means putting on a pair of blue jeans to confront the injustice of the world head on, no matter the consequences.
So here is my challenge to you. Tomorrow morning when you get up, and the day after, and the day after that…
After you have picked out a top, or a tie, and shoes to match.
Ask yourself this.
How could I clothe myself with Christ today? What do I need to put on. Or take on. In order to bear the truth of God’s love into the world today, just by the way that I am.
How can I live this day such that God’s power and love are undeniable?
I have no way to know the what King prayed alone in that motel room.
But I can imagine him on his knees asking God, “what do you need me to do here, so that the truth of your love and power are undeniable to all. What do you need me to do, so that your people can be free.”
“What do I need to put on. Or take on. In order to bear the truth of God’s love into the world today, just by the way that I am?”
And that time, God said:
“Martin, Blue Jeans.”