The Breath, The Wind and The Spirit

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Howard Thurman

Jesus appears to the disciples

It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.”After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As God has sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.

The text we have before us today is John’s version of Pentecost. But this isn’t the version of the Pentecost story we’re used to, is it? We’re used to Luke’s version of Pentecost as told in Acts. Now, that version of Pentecost is very dramatic. There are violent winds, people suddenly speak the same language, and of course, those tongues of fire resting on the heads of the faithful. Luke’s Pentecost is finally about dramatic transformation. He tells us that 3,000 people were baptized that day.

But John’s version of Pentecost is a little different. John tells us that the Risen Christ entered a locked room, bid the disciples peace, and then “…he breathed on them and said, ‘receive the Holy Spirit.’”

Now, on the surface this may seem less dramatic and certainly less chaotic than Luke’s account. Jesus just breathed on them and offered them the Blessing of the Spirit. But I think t’s interesting to consider “spirit” in its original context here; in the original languages of the Bible.

The word in Hebrew that’s translated as “spirit” IS Ruah. And here’s the interesting part. Ruah means more than just spirit, It can also be understood as breath, OR wind. And the Biblical Greek of the New Testament tells much the same story. Pneumatos, (pneumatos) from which we get the English word Pneumatic, can also be translated as “air or breath, wind or spirit.”

So, when Jesus “breathed” on his disciples and imparted to them the gift of the “Spirit” his very breath was the Spirit! And for all of you familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, John’s version of Pentecost harkens back to the second creation narrative in Genesis where God’s own breath becomes humanity’s breath, and then, by extension, across the arc of time and space, God’s Breath, Gods’ Spirit, becomes ours. Our very breath contains a bit of the universe, and the expanse of the universe contains a bit of our being, our essence, …our breath.

So, if you think about it in these terms then, God’s Spirit is both the breath that’s within us and at the same time, it’s the wind that’s blowing all around us. The Spirit is within and around all things. All things are intrinsically and forever …interconnected! So, that means the Spirit is God, and therefore God is within and around all things. And since this indwelled and enveloping spirit has been with us all along, the effect of John’s Pentecost may not so much about new birth, as it is about rebirth. It may not be so much about a new covenant it is about a renewed covenant. A covenant that would change the hearts and minds of disciples, both then and now. The lasting effect of Jesus’ Breathing on the disciples may be the very thing that we need to understand and comes to grips with in order to renew the face of the earth! [i]

This is Good News for us 21st-century Christians as we think about Pentecost in a very real and living way. I mean, think about it! The same Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, God, is the same breath that filled the lungs of Jesus, which is the same gentle spring breeze that caresses our cheeks and tickle our hair, which is the same Spirit that warmed the hearts of those disciples on the Emmaus road and inspired those gathered in that locked upper room, which is the same Spirit that’s looking to inspire a rebirth within each of us.

So, I would say, when it’s all said and done, that John’s version of Pentecost finally contains the same message of transformation that we see in Luke’s version. Which is significant for us today, as the effects of this global pandemic continue on into the summer, and as every terrible statistic and every terrifying projection flash cross our screens. It seems to me that if we let this terrible situation and these dire predictions; if we let this time of necessary isolation and smart social distancing, this time of wearing masks in public to protect our neighbor even when they don’t realize it; if we let these times cause us to withdraw, then, I believe we run the risk of missing the opportunity to see the transformation that’s possible.

I mean, who’s not amazed by the generosity of spirit, by the nobility of spirit, that we have witnessed in our health-care workers, and those essential workers who are keeping things afloat. Who’s not amazed by our friends and families who tend to the most vulnerable in our midst? Who’s not amazed by the creative and loving ways that neighbors have reached to other neighbors, finding connection, and yes, rebirth.

A wonderful example of this can be found right here in Cable. All across town we were asked to display a single word of hope in the windows of our businesses and churches. Those words were collected and used to create a beautiful poem of encouragement. It’s the little things that will finally get us through this.

You know, as I think about all these essential workers, the words of encouragement displayed in our windows, and of neighbor helping neighbor, I’m reminded of the words of the great Howard Thurman. He once said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”[ii]

My friends, as we continue to BE the church, separated in body but unified in spirit, may we too seek to “come alive!” May we “come alive” as we continue to be the kind of people whom the world needs in this moment! And may we, each of us, “come alive” to the reality of the interconnectedness of ALL things. An interconnection that begins deep within our being through the Breath of Life. But it doesn’t stay there. Our breath expands outward every time we exhale, connecting us with all things on the Winds of the Spirit, binding humanity and all of creation together in one Spirit; the Spirit of the Living God!

May it be so for you and for me. Amen and the people of God said, Amen

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[i] Katheryn Matthews Spiritual Understanding (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2020

[ii] Quote found at (www.ucc.org/samuel) May 31, 2020

Thoughts About Re-Opening Churches

I would like to address the fact that many churches across the nation and here in Wisconsin have resumed their regular Sunday morning services. I understand the sentiment. I too would love to see my beloved congregations worshipping in our sanctuaries. I miss our in-person community. But here’s the thing. In both of our congregations, the leadership has been monitoring the suggested protocols for re-opening from The World Health Organization and the CDC, The Wisconsin Council of Churches, The Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ, specifically, Franz Rigert our conference minister. And even from Church Mutual, our insurance company. And the message from all of these organizations is crystal clear, they ALL suggest that we’re not there yet. My friends, we can BE the Church and we can BE in community with each other, even while we’re still apart.

So, as we continue to be separated in body but unified in spirit, let us come before God in this time of prayer and silent reflection.

God of Grace, Christ of Compassion, All-Encompassing Spirit…                                          Justice and Love, and doing the right thing, all seem so complicated. We engage in honest and sincere discussions, ask important questions, and make plans, but it seems like nothing ever changes and the world stays broken.

Silence

But, you’ve given us a picture, Sacred One, a clear, well-defined view of your dream for humanity and creation. In the Bible, we read about the life and love and compassion of Jesus, and we can see that you’ve outlined the steps, that you’ve indicated the colors, and demonstrated the method, to fill our world with compassion and peace and justice. It’s almost like painting by numbers, if only, if only we would follow the instructions.

Silence

Perhaps love and justice are not what’s complicated. Perhaps, it’s our tendency to look inward rather than looking out our across this nation and this world with the eyes of acceptance, with the hearts of compassion, and with hands and feet ready to serve you by loving all our neighbors, the neighbor across the street and the one across the globe.

Silence

So, now we pray for ourselves, dear God, that we may learn to follow you – even when it’s hard, or unpopular, or difficult to understand. And we pray for our world, for justice and peace to emerge from this pandemic and that hope will remain steadfast, that your vision of celebration and of sharing, of respect and caring, may be embraced and lived, in every corner of the earth. We pray today to find the will and courage to “paint by numbers”   Amen & God’s faithful said, Amen.

God’s Here!

Acts 17 & Psalm 139

My message to all of you today is a simple one. God is present with us at all times and in all circumstances. Even when we can’t seem to find God in our midst, God is here! God is present during this current pandemic, God is with us in our isolation, in our times of uncertainty and fear, as well as in our moments of joy and times of celebration. God is present among, around, and within all living things. God is here!

“Now, that’s all fine,” you might say, “I like unicorns and rainbows as much as the next person, but what about those times when God seems distant? In my fear, in my distress, in my grief, in my loneliness, what about those times when I can’t feel God’s presence? Is there something wrong with me? Is there something wrong with my faith?”

Well, as we begin to investigate these questions and attempt to understand this premise of a constant and consistent divine presence, I think we may need to take on a new perspective. What do I mean by a “new perspective”? Well, Marcus Borg, in a devotion called How We Imagine God Matters, helps us out a bit here. Borg tells us that “…the Bible is not God’s story of God. But rather, that the Hebrew Bible is ancient Israel’s story of God, and the New Testament is the early Christian movement’s story of God, especially as revealed in Jesus. How did these two ancient communities see the central character in their story? How did they imagine God, and God’s relationship to the world?”

On one hand,” Borg says, “the Bible often uses personal imagery to speak of God. God is spoken of in personified images. We say that God is like a king, or a parent, or a shepherd, or a potter, to cite a partial list. Now, the sheer number of images points to the fact that they are metaphors. God is not literally any of these, but is like a king, like a parent, like a shepherd, and so forth. But when we take these human-like metaphors literally, we generate a way of seeing God commonly called “supernatural theism.” That is, we see God as someone “out there” who created the universe a long time ago as something separate from Godself. God does occasionally intervene, especially in the more dramatic events reported in the Bible, but most of the time, according to supernatural theism, God is “out there.”

On the other hand, the Bible also describes God’s relationship to the universe as “right here” as well as “more” than right here. This way of imagining God sees the deity as an all-encompassing Spirit: a non-material dimension of reality that surrounds us and indwells everything around us.[I]

Now, our reading for today from the Book of Acts describes God in this way. Paul says that God is “…the one in whom we live and move and have our being.” In other words, God is not somewhere “out there” but rather, God is all around us: we live and move “in God.”

The same can be said for Psalm 139. The Psalmist asks, “Where could I go to get away from your Spirit?” He then imagines journeying through the ancient three-story universe: ascending into the heavens, descending to the depths of death, and traveling to the furthest corners of the earth, and yet, the author concludes, God is always present.

Now, it’s important for us to know that it’s alright to speak of God in personified terms. These images helps us to begin to understand the nature of God in terms that we can wrap our minds around. But we cannot rest there. We must continue to grow in our understanding of God as ever-present. Especially when the storms and struggles and pandemics of life surround us.

I read a devotion this week by Kenneth L. Samuel that helps us to begin to move in that direction. He writes, “Jesus invites us to not only believe in God’s eternal existence [but] to believe in God’s very present-presence. The presence of God in you and among you, right now.” He goes on to say, “The presence of God is expressed in the dedication of health care professionals. And food suppliers. And grocery store workers. And sanitation and cleaning service personnel. The presence of God is expressed in the challenge we all now face to differentiate that which is tangential to life from that which is essential to life. The presence of God is expressed in calls and texts that touch the hearts of friends and loved ones. [And finally] The presence of God is expressed in giving our planet some time to breathe from the relentless assaults of environmental abuse.[ii]

My friends, God is present in all of these ways because in the end God isn’t a person or some distant entity. God is expressed in all of these ways that Kenneth Samuel describes here and more, because God is love. God is wisdom. God is compassion. God is found in generosity, and in kindness, and in respect; God is discovered in blossoming relationships and in long-time partnerships; God is present whenever we reach-out to others, whenever we pray or meditate or reflect on the greater good for all. My friends, God is present when we work for justice, when we love in the name of compassion, and when we seek a lasting peace both within ourselves and among nations.

Beloved, as we continue to be the church, to be community, separated in body but unified in spirit, may we all come to recognize that we do so in the presence of a Loving God who’s here right now and will continue to speak to each of us as we go forward.

Amen & Amen.

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[i] Marcus Borg How We Imagine God Matters (www.beliefnet.com) 2000

[ii] Kenneth L. Samuel Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled (dailydevotional@ucc.org) 5/10/2020

Center of Love

Hear now these words of wisdom from the 12th chapter of Paul’s Epistle to Rome as told by Eugene Peterson in The Message.

Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle. Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality. Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody. Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone.

“Love from the center of who you are” and “discover beauty in everyone.” These words from Paul’s message to the Romans have been an important part of my life and ministry. When I was in a particularly challenging situation, I had these very words on a slip of paper under the glass on my desk so I would be reminded of them every day. And believe me, there were days when finding my “center of love” wasn’t an easy task. There were days, when my anger would begin to well-up and I was sure that “vengeance” should have been mine, there were days… well, let’s just say that a glance at Paul’s simple wisdom would calm me down and help me to put things back into perspective.

But putting things into perspective during these difficult times, that seems to be another thing altogether. You see, I’ve noticed during these past weeks of isolation and shut-down that people are becoming even more angry than before. And in this political climate, that’s saying something. But it’s not just politics. I read rants from parents on Facebook about how difficult it is to have their children home all the time. They’re complaining about spending too much time with their spouse and some are even irritated by their dog.

Now, I understand their frustration to a degree. I know they’re worried about the economy, losing their job and subsequently, their health insurance. Fear can easily morph into anger. I get it. But at the same time I don’t. I mean, yes, there are inconveniences caused by having to stay home and being asked to take precautions, like wearing a mask or social distancing, when you have to go out. But from my perspective there are so many bigger things at stake here. Life and death. There are very real issues of injustice; issues that already existed but have been exasperated by this virus. Issues like the very real face of inequality in this nation. People of color, immigrants, undocumented folks, the homeless population; these people are at a greater risk of dying from this disease. And let’s not forget those living in long-term care facilities and nursing homes and the people who care for them. They’re especially vulnerable.

So, the question in my mind is this: How should we respond to these issues? How do we as an “isolated” community of faith actually make a difference?

You know, these are tough questions and there are no easy answers. There just aren’t. But this is where the wisdom of my slip of paper comes into play. “Love from the center of who you are” and “discover beauty in everyone.” These words give us pause and permission to think and then act beyond ourselves. These beautiful words begin to form the foundation of what it means to be a community of faith, a church. Remember, the church isn’t a building. A building can be, and should be, closed during something like a pandemic. But the church, our communities of faith, they’re something more.

Paul, goes on in this passage to describe his vision of what it means to be a community of faith that is “centered in love” He says things like be genuine, choose to do good things over bad things, be humble and be a good friend. He admonishes us to hang in there, stay passionate for justice, a passion that is realized in prayer, outreach to the needy, and this is interesting, he wants us to be “inventive in hospitality.” We should love our enemies; laugh together in times of joy and weep together in times of sorrow. And finally, this one always makes me laugh a little, get along with each other (duh) and whenever possible live in peace with everyone.

You know, there’s an interesting book out there called Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, by Paul F. Knitter. In this book he uses insights from his study of Buddhism to re-frame Christian community and in this re-framing is similar to what we’ve seen in Paul’s “loving center” vision. Take for example the Buddhist greeting, “Namasté.” Namasté is a way of acknowledging that everyone we meet has all the same goodness that is in us. And when we acknowledge that, it enables us to relate to others with genuine compassion.[i]

So, considering this bit of re-framing, how do we then respond to evil? I mean, if we are challenged to see the good in everyone, how do we treat someone who’s not-so-good in our opinion. Well, I would say, in the same way Jesus did. Jesus knew that only the willingness to respond to hostility with peace, to respond to hatred with forgiveness, could lead to real and lasting redemption. He was calling his followers, both then and now, to follow his pattern of non-violent resistance by embracing those who do evil with mercy and kindness and forgiveness.

It’s the way Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela and countless other black South Africans responded to the white South Africans who had committed unspeakable atrocities against them. That’s what it means for a community of faith to overcome evil with good! That’s what it means to find our center in love, even in the midst of suffering, even under oppression. And then begin to discover a deeper, hidden beauty in every single person, even the person whom society tells you to hate. Because here’s the thing. We can only truly overcome evil, we can only truly find peace, if we can embrace the other with compassion.[ii]

So, my friends, as we continue to be and become community in these unusual and often frightening times, please remember Paul’s vision: Love from the center of who you are and discover the beauty in everyone. If you can do that, it will enable you to take a step back during those difficult moments and gaze upon a wider landscape. These words will allow all of us, as a community, to turn our focus outward, advocating for justice for the most vulnerable and peace among nations. This is our higher goal. This is what it means to be a community who finds it’s center in love.

May it be so. Amen.

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[i] Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian (One World Publications) 2009

[ii] Knitter, Without Buddha, 188, where he cautions that even the act of calling others “evildoers” can preclude our ability to respond to them in a way that creates justice and peace and freedom.

Joy in the Morning

Fifth Sunday of Easter & Mother’s Day – Psalm 30:2-12

Several years ago, in an unscripted moment, a little girl in Manila asked the visiting Pope Francis why God allows children to suffer. She had just told him in front of a million people that she scrounged food from the garbage and slept outside on a cardboard mat.
Here’s what the Pope did. He enfolded the sobbing child in his arms. Then he admonished everyone to quiet down and pay close attention, he then said, “She has just asked the one question with no answer.”[I]

As the days and weeks and now months of this pandemic continue, and we see our fellow Americans dying, over 70,000 so far, and so many more across the globe, the Pope’s response to this little girl’s question looms large. Why does God allow such suffering?

Well, when the crowd finally settled down, Pope Francis said to the little girl, “We can’t answer you now. Only when we are able to weep about the things you have lived will we understand anything and be able to answer you.” He went on to say that the world needs to weep. “The marginalized weep, the scorned weep, the sick and dying weep – but we who are privileged, we don’t always know how. We must learn.” [ii]

In these awful days of virus-related illness and death, whenever we’re asked why these things happen, let us not be quick to answer. Let us not skip to judgement, either of God or one another. But how can I say something like this during such dark and uncertain times? Well, perhaps because it’s because of the assurance we can receive from word of wisdom and hope like the one we have before us today.

In Psalm 30, David seems to be rejoicing at the end of a trying time. “God, my God,” he said, “I yelled for help and you put me together. You pulled me out of the grave, and gave me another chance at life when I was down-and-out.” He goes on to say, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”[iii]

Yes, as Francis said, “we must learn to weep.” But, my friends, The Psalmist tells us that it doesn’t end with the weeping or the mourning or the grief. The darkness of this pandemic doesn’t have the last say. “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” There will be life after this time of death. Light will break through the darkness.

But, that being said, I think we have to be careful here. Careful, because to get to the “joy in the morning” part we have to move through, embrace, deal-with, and grieve the dark night of our soul. In other words, we can’t get to the warm-fuzzy without going through the cold-prickly first. A cold-prickly that goes beyond just mourning the dead and learning to exist in a recessive economy. A big part of what we have to come to terms with in this dark night of Covid-19 is the unknown. Our future is unknown. How severe this could get here in Northern Wisconsin, is unknown. When everything will open-up and return to some semblance of normal, is unknown. And like the Pope’s answer to the little girl’s question, there are some deeper theological issues that have no answer.

Maybe think of it like this. All of what we as humans know about God could be represented by a single grain of cosmic dust. What we don’t know about God, the Mysterious, could fill the rest of the universe. “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer when it comes to trying to wrap our minds around a time of suffering and death of this magnitude.

But then there’s that single grain of cosmic dust; the part we do know. And David, here in Psalm 30, says it in what I think is the best way possible. “…across a lifetime,” he says, “there is only love.” There is only love. My friends, that’s the warm-fuzzy we’ve been seeking. That’s the rainbow after the storm. That’s the joy that comes in the morning! Across the lifetime of our ancestors, across our lifetime, across the lifetime of our children and our grand-children and their grand-children, there will be love because God is love! God is love!

So, let us weep now. Let us weep with the families of those who have died. Let us weep with those who are ill. Let us weep with those suffering financial loss. Let us weep with the marginalized and the outcast, the homeless, and the refugee, and the immigrant. Let us weep for our planet, for the changing climate and the loss of so many species of animal and insect. Let us weep together in the darkness. But tomorrow… tomorrow the sun will rise and we will be called and challenged, in the light of day, to do our part, to be safe for the safety of others, to seek justice for all people, to coexist with all religions and work toward a day with peace will prevail. In the light of day, we can and we will, once again, find our joy!

I’m going to leave you today with an old Ojibway Prayer that goes like this: “Grandfather, Sacred one. Teach us love, compassion, and honor. That we may heal the earth and heal each other.” Let us indwell these ancient words of wisdom as we seek a joyous morning not only for ourselves but for all our neighbors, those across the street and those on the other side of the globe.

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[i] Mary Luti Learn to Weep (www.ucc.org/stillspeaking/devotional.com) 2020

[ii] Ibid. Luti

[iii] Psalm 3:5b New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) Copyright © 1989

Looking Forward

Luke 24:13-35

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”[i] Isn’t it interesting that a statement made over a hundred years ago is still so relevant today. In these frightening and uncertain days, we will only become fully aware of what’s happening to us in retrospect. Yes, we can and must make important decisions in real time, but the full impact of those decisions will not be completely understood until some future date.

So, bearing that in mind, I think it’s imperative that we consider the second part of Kierkegaard’s statement, “[Life] must be lived forward.” Which is the point of the Resurrection account that we have before us today. You see, the two man, as they undertook that long walk home, were looking backwards. They understood their present situation in the context of Jesus’ death. They had no conception or understanding of what possibilities might lay ahead. Their life, in that moment, could only be understood “backwards.”

But, as we all know from our perspective 2,000 years later, that they didn’t remain in their grief. Notice that God didn’t prevent them from wandering, God didn’t prevent their suffering. Suffering and wandering a part of life, everyone’s life, yours, mine, everyone’s. When something bad happens to us it isn’t because we’ve done something to anger a vengeful God, and when something great happens it isn’t because we’re more righteous than anyone else. “[God] makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.”[ii] And in was in the midst of their darkness, that the Light of God began to walk alongside these two disciples.

Now, you have already heard the story. And incognito Jesus joined two despondent travelers but he only became known to them through teaching and sacrament. The text says he opened the Scriptures to them, what we now call the Old Testament. Now, because he provided a new way of looking at the old teachings, Jesus took their understanding of the Law and replaced it with a forward looking perspective. Jesus expanded their concept of how Scripture might shape their lives. And here’s the goodie! It was with that new life-perspective that that recognized the risen Christ.

Perhaps, in these difficult and unusual times, maybe we too should consider expanding our understanding of faith and life, and relationship, and the meaning of sacrament for our time. I mean, can we find a sense of sacrament, a sacred space or time, beyond the communion table or the baptismal font? Can Divine Wisdom come from many places, many people, from a diverse collection of religious or philosophical texts; might God be revealed through everyday conversations, with everyday people, in our everyday context? Can God come-to-life in new and imaginative ways?

Now, I don’t know the answers to all of these questions, but I think it would be a worthwhile task to explore them. And maybe, just maybe, if we begin to explore and experience teaching and sacrament in a new way, if we turn our gaze forward, maybe we will begin to imagine a world where all people live in peace and practice justice; a world where there is no place for greed or hunger or homelessness; maybe we could even imagine a time when all people choose to coexist with nature and with each other. Perhaps, if we indwell this forward-looking perspective we might be empowered to continue to love our neighbor through social distancing and by wearing our masks when we cannot stay home. And if we choose to be forward-looking, maybe we would be truly “liberated” by continuing to follow Governor Evers’ stay-at-home order.

One final thought before we move into prayer and communion. God is still God, always. Even in times of unprecedented change, even when we need to adopt a new perspective on life and faith, God is still the God of love and grace and compassion. And the Bible, from any perspective, tells us that God is good and generous and can be counted on, in every age and every circumstance.[iii]

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[i] Katheryn Matthews Breaking Bread (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2020

[ii] Matthew 5:45b (Common English Bible CEB)

[iii] Ibid Matthews