On a recent Sunday I had the opportunity to preach on the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) at First Christian Church of Decatur (Ga.), where I am serving as an intern as part of my seminary studies at Candler School of Theology of Emory University.
Without going into the entire sermon: These verses illustrate a powerful, counter-cultural welcome by Jesus to the very diverse crowd who came out to see him looking for hope. Often we visualize Jesus on a mountaintop speaking the words of the Beatitudes as if he were giving a new law, like Moses giving the Ten Commandments, that we are to follow. We should be meek, we should mourn, and we should be peacemakers. Although there is some good in this perspective, that is not at all what Jesus was trying to do, or what the Gospel writer (Matthew) was trying to do.
The key comes in Matthew 5:3, which Dallas Willard expands as “Blessed are the spiritual zeros, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” No one would say Jesus wants people to be spiritual zeros, so these verses are not about a new law. Instead, we see Jesus saying to everyone who would never be expected in a religious ceremony, to those who have lost much, and to those who are not important (e.g., the meek), that they are Blessed and welcome in this community. One expects that these messages were typical of Jesus’ teaching.
And yet, there is a more personal side to this story that did not make the sermon. One can only say so much, even in a 15-minute sermon. Further, I keep hearing the works of my preaching professor Teresa Fry-Brown at Candler: “When preaching, don’t bleed over the congregation.”
I want to tell the rest of this story that is part of God’s calling to me. Today I can see God calling me into ministry as part of my academic life, and yet this was only possible once I authentically embraced how God made me, a transgender woman called to minister to God’s community.
I first heard about Dallas Willard’s take on Matthew 5 at Menlo Park (Calif.) Presbyterian Church in May 2008. I was still living in Atlanta at the time, yet I traveled to California once a month as part of a technical startup company I co-founded from my research group’s efforts at Georgia Institute of Technology.
I would often be in California over a weekend, and MPPC became my second home church. It awoke my soul in ways that I could hear God’s voice. (The launchings of startup companies sometimes are considered religious experiences, but not typically in these ways.)
At the same time, I had begun to come to accept my transgender nature, which had always been with me, and to begin to live into how God created me. Being authentic meant being authentic in worship, and in January 2008 I presented authentically as myself for worship at MPPC. I was terrified. Everything went well, and yet I was focused on being in that space and not on the service.
The second time I went to worship, I was calm enough to be in a place of connecting with the music and connecting with those around me. And yet, I was not in a place to deeply receive the sermon for the day.
The third time in May 2008, I was comfortable enough in the space to truly be present during the sermon and hear what God was saying to me. John Ortberg gave the sermon on Matthew 5:1-12 and brought up his friend Dallas Willard’s perspective (“Blessed are the spiritual zeros”).
And oh, did God speak directly to me that morning.
Throughout the discussion I kept hearing, “Blessed are the T, for they will be riotously celebrated in the Kingdom of God.” God seemed to be speaking to me and showing me the path God was making for me.
The Kingdom of God, the place on this earth and in the world to come where things are done as God wills, comes not just to one like me, but also especially to one like me, just as I authentically am. One day, someone needs to tell this message to a community that so badly needs to hear that God welcomes home everyone who is transgender in spite of how that community has treated them.
This part of scripture has become a place of continued study for me ever since. I did exegetical work on this passage while taking a seminary class on Matthew in 2015. I have spent time reading and studying through lesser-known writings (e.g., the 1st book of Enoch) to deeply ground these interpretations. The first time I had a chance to preach, the passage was Matthew 5:1-12. God has a way of making a path into our heart and continues to call.
When God’s hand touches you, you just know. And you will never forget it.
For me, my gender transition was part of God calling me, and throughout the path, God has always walked with me.
To those who believe that somehow scripture excludes them from God or God’s community, know that Jesus explicitly welcomed everyone. And good news — all of you who thought you had been excluded, those that had been left by the world, told you cannot contribute, or have no hope of being in the kingdom on this earth, yes, it is available to you.
And good news to each and every transgender individual, for those of you who have been marginalized, been told you are less than human, for those of you not accepted by your families, God calls you Blessed, and loves you as God’s precious children. You are riotously celebrated.
Jennifer Hasler is a full professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology since 1997. Dr. Hasler received her M.S. and B.S.E. in Electrical Engineering from Arizona State University in 1991, and received her Ph.D. from California Institute of Technology in Computation and Neural Systems in 1997. She will finish her Masters of Divinity from Candler School of Theology, Emory University, in May 2020. Dr. Hasler has been awarded multiple technical and professional awards, including Georgia Tech’s outstanding advisor award in 2011, and Georgia Tech’s LGBTQIA outstanding faculty in 2017. Her professional interests span many electrical engineering, computing, neuroscience, and theology areas. Jennifer has been married to her spouse for 24 years and they have two children, Emily and Julie.