Archive for March, 2010

March 28

The Liturgy of the Passion

By Marsh Chapel

Luke 22:14-23:56
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Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,
As to behold desert a beggar born,

And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded honour shamefully misplac’d,
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgrac’d
And strength by limping sway disable
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly, doctor-like, controlling skill,
And simple truth miscall’d simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill:
Tir’d with all these, from these would I be gone,
Save that, to die I leave my love alone.

Sonnet 66
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

March 21

Atonement Lenten Series V

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.
John 12:1-8
As we approach the end of this Lenten series on Atonement, I can’t help but wonder whether our centuries of elaborate theories, on which the whole church has never agreed, don’t point to a more basic hesitation to believe the fundamental claim that we have indeed been reconciled with God. That somehow, through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, whatever barrier may have existed between us and the Holy One has been definitively torn down.

We puzzle at this possibility and ask with Charles Wesley’s hymn:
And can it be that I should gain 
an interest in the Savior’s blood! 

Died he for me? who caused his pain! 
For me? who him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be ?

How indeed can it be, we wonder – probing the mechanisms by which Jesus might bring humankind into union with God. But we miss the point altogether if we forget to marvel at that union itself, at the reconciliation which exists and the connection which endures. It is this kind of wondering that Wesley invites in the next verse of that same hymn:
‘Tis mystery all: th’ Immortal dies! 
Who can explore his strange design?
‘Tis mercy all; let earth adore. Let angel minds inquire no more.

A strange mystery indeed … stranger still if we can imagine how un-like us God is sometimes, most of all in the amazing extravagance of unconditional love. Can it be, atonement theories aside, that God might simply love us, for no reason, and with no reservations, through a strange mystery that boggles our minds as much as the Psalmist’s proclamation of rivers in the desert. Can it be that we are saved by love? Full stop.

We know that we go to great lengths to separate ourselves from God. Wandering down alluring paths, chasing after elusive riches, settling for other, not-so-amazing loves, and fearing that we might not be worth anything more.

Can it be that we set the caveats on salvation, conditions for communion, prerequisites for admission into God’s family? “God will save us, if we accept Jesus; if the Father’s wrath is assuaged; if his honor is preserved; if his justice is maintained; if the God-man dies; if the perfect sacrifice is offered; if the invitation is received.” If, if, if.

Can it be, though, that God is not an amplification of ourselves, not a mirror of our “if”-modified loves, our “if”-restrained loyalties?

Can it be that for no reason but love itself the very God of the universe is alive in each and every human soul and is pulsing through Creation? Can it be that the One who “who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters” Isaiah says; is perfectly capable of finding a way into the hearts of you and me.

Can it be that the Psalmist was right in wondering
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?

Can it be that he was right, too, in answering this way
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 

even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast. 

Can it be that Paul was also right, when he said that
neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present,
nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus

Can it be that the image of God within us and the Spirit of God beyond us conspire in a saving unity that draws us more and more into the life of the Holy One?

Can it be that the union with God, which our souls seek, is found when explanation ceases and contemplation begins?

This is where we find ourselves in today’s Gospel, with a mind-boggling act by Mary of Bethany. Jesus visits his friends: Martha, Mary and the recently-raised-from-the-dead Lazarus for a dinner party at their home, a couple of miles outside Jerusalem.

Martha is of course busy getting the food ready, and Lazarus is at table, perhaps talking with some of the disciples, when Mary makes her way to the feet of Jesus and anoints them with a pound of an expensive, fragrant ointment of pure nard. She lingers there, wiping these well-walked feet with her very own hair.

This provocatively intimate moment between two friends caught the eye of Judas, who objected to the wastefulness of her behavior. ʺWhy was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?ʺ A noble question, perhaps, since this sum might be as much as a whole year’s pay. But the jousting of explanations that comes next reveals something more is afoot, with the Gospel writer questioning the motives of the soon-to-be-betrayer, and with Jesus snapping back “Leave her alone” and reminding everyone about the death he saw coming. “The poor you will always have with you,” he says, “but you will not always have me.”

Mary has discerned what the others did not. The tides were turning. Christ’s body was breaking. This was no moment for ordinary reasoning, but for irrationally-extravagant love. Perhaps she could hear the crack in Jesus’ voice, see a weariness of step, a furrowed brow, or an empty stare that betrayed an inner ferment, as he gathered up the power to face what would lie ahead.

Perhaps she knew that something was wrong, that he now needed a blessing. She comes near to him with the same perceptively healing gentleness that he showed to so many others – to the woman at the well, the blind ones in Jericho, the paralytic at Bethsaida, the lepers on the road, and even wee little Zacchaeus up in his tree, even the perpetually not-too-bright disciples, even maybe you and me…

But now his feet are the object of mercy; others take on his healing work. “See from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down,” words we will sing in a few minutes time, marking this new moment in the life of Jesus, a moment of mingled emotion and shifting roles. Yes, Jesus still will kneel and wash the feet of his friends, but as he does, as we are transformed more and more into that Body of Christ.

Judas misses this meaning, misses the connection between friends partaking in each other’s love, and falls into the familiar temptation to make everything about money – a commodification of both the poor and the nard, reducing the fruits of the earth, the loving work of human hands, and the dignity of God’s people into charity and cash, exchangeable, transferable, without the intimate investment Mary shows.

Judas misses the fact that when we really love someone, we do all kinds of crazy things whose economics may be questionable – a pound of nard, an only-begotten Son, perhaps. And even if his desire is pure, Judas misses the one thing that is right before his eyes.

Like him we love big ideas, sensible plans, well-ordered syllabi, and practical strategies with quantifiable benchmarks of success. And these, like caring for the poor, are good, good things. But we can become lost
in them, and wander far from the God who is staring us in the face, far enough that it takes an irrationally prophetic acting out, an undeniably extravagant expression of love to catch our attention again.

We can be tempted to believe the lie that we’re somehow missing out on life if we’re not stressed-out, sleep-deprived, overworked, hypercaffeinated, perpetually entertained and well on our way to making a fortune and/or changing the world – preferably with a hefty dose of community activities, a better than average partner, and a house and cute dog for an added bonus. Mary tells us “STOP, stop, stop” and see what is in front of you. See – like she saw Jesus.

Yes the healing of the world is urgent, but to do that God’s way we need to learn to focus on the one thing. If we are to avoid making even the work of Christ into a project with a price tag, we need to practice an intense, attentive, extravagant love for one who is already before us – the roommate, the partner, the colleague, the familiar stranger on the street, the lonely neighbor down the hall. When we do this, then we might be ready to approach, with dignity, a wider suffering.

Maybe like me you’re juggling jobs to make ends meet, trying hard to just get by, and all this is sounding a little too mystical. But in these last days of Lent, I pray we will give ourselves the gift of some small place to focus bottle of nard’s worth of time:

Maybe call your mom. Speak a word of truth, however painful. Have a cup of tea with a potential new friend. Ask for something you desperately need. Forgive a festering hurt. Walk in this new-found spring weather for no reason other than to spend time with the One who calls you by name. Imagine what an act of extravagant love, for the one who is before your eyes, might be.

Whether your Lenten observance has been a paragon of perfection, or a wilderness disaster, we have time, still, to practice Mary’s style of love. And Holy Week will bring even more ritual moments of irrational intimacy – to praise the one we hoped would change the world, to have our feet washed by our Teacher, to weep at the foot of the cross, to run away in shame, and to marvel, speechless, at the one who is alive again.

All this is coming (not to mention a mission to heal the world and a Spirit to comfort and guide us) – but for now we have in Mary a precious moment with the vulnerable Jesus, one who longs for us, a moment to come near and manifest the unity we have in God by our care for another.

Can it be that this love is in us too? That same amazing love, which sought us out when we were far off, pulsing now through our veins? Can it be that Jesus has released a power in us? Can it be? Yes, of course … though extravagant love looks to others like foolishness, like a waste; a naïve, unrealistic choice. It makes “sense,” if you can call it that, only in the economy of God, only with the mind of Christ.

And here is where my favorite atonement image might actually help a little – itself more a contemplation than an explanation. It’s what the second century theologian Irenaeus called “recapitulation” – that in Christ, God returns humanity to its true purpose, not simply taking away sin but infusing Creation with a renewal of its original holiness. It’s a kind of cosmic do-over, with a little extra help this time. At every moment of his life, Jesus shows us another way, offers us another choice, demonstrates that rejection of God and each other are not inevitable.

It is, as Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky says, “the deification of created beings by uncreated grace.” A true union with God, not an eradication of our selfhood, nor a feeble acquaintance, but a sharing in the same energies of Life, so that the love which was in Christ Jesus could also erupt in Mary’s love for him, and in our love for those God sends to us. Anglican theologian Lancelot Andrews put it this way: “Whereby, as before He of ours, so now we of His are made partakers.” Can it be? Can it be?

How bold we might become if we really believed, if we trusted that Jesus has already pioneered this way of foolishly boundless love, that we don’t have to be the first to risk awkwardness at a dinner party. Jesus and now Mary of Bethany go before us, along with the saints and sages of the generations, the cloud of witnesses whose lives were filled with God enough to overflow. Can it be that extravagant love is in us, too, ready to be released when we but focus on the One before our eyes, and so more and more become partakers in the very God of the Universe and this being-redeemed world.

Can we take our part in this strange mystery, an atonement in which God chooses us for no reason at all? And so we ask, with John Donne –
Wilt thou love God, as he thee? Then digest,
My soul, this wholesome meditation,
How God the Spirit, by angels waited on
In heaven, doth make his Temple in thy breast.
The Father having begot a Son most blest,
And still begetting, (for he ne’er be gone)
Hath deigned to choose thee by adoption,
Co-heir t’ his glory, and Sabbath’ endless rest.
‘Twas much that man was made like God before,
But, that God should be made like man, much more

Amazing love, how can it be.

~The Reverend Joshua Thomas,
Episcopal University Chaplain

March 14

Atonement Lenten Series IV

By Marsh Chapel

“Be reconciled to God.”

We can take Paul’s exhortation in two ways this morning. In Lent we are most often asked to consider how we can be reconciled to God from God’s point of view, in light of our sin which separates us from God. That is indeed an important and necessary part of our reconciliation. And, this morning our scriptures invite us to consider also how we can be reconciled to God from our point of view, in light of the resentment and distrust we often hold toward God.

At first glance, the story that has come down to us as “The Prodigal Son” is a straightforward redemption story that focuses on the younger son. He asks for his share of the inheritance, squanders it “in dissolute living”, comes to rock bottom, and then “comes to himself”. He realizes that while he cannot have the life he had, he can still have a good life. So he goes back to reconcile with his father, to serve him as a servant if he cannot serve him as a child and heir. The father on his part greets him with joy and is quick to reconcile, restores him as a child if not an heir, and throws a luxurious party to celebrate his return. All well and good. But Jesus does not end the story with this happy ending. Instead, he continues the story with the arrival of the elder son, who bitterly resents the father’s joyful reception of the younger son with no retribution. He resents also the father’s lack of appreciation for his, the elder son’s, hard work. The elder son refuses to join the party even when his father pleads with him to come in. He refuses his relationship with his brother (“this son of yours”, he calls him). He questions his father’s love for him himself. We never do find out if he joins the party or not.

If we are honest, as we are called to be in Lent, it is often a challenge for us – the good people, the Christians, the members of the Church – to be reconciled to God in the face of what God and others choose to do. Even if others repent or undergo the consequences of bad or even evil choices, we still find it hard to believe that God can or should love them as much as we should be loved in our goodness and hard work. Some of you may remember the denial and outrage when it was reported that Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial killer, had repented and become a Christian in prison, and that when Dahmer was killed in prison the chaplain stated that he himself did believe that Jeffrey was saved and would be in heaven with God. Likewise the denial and outrage when Charles Colson, Richard Nixon’s hatchet man, repented in prison and went on to found his Prison Fellowship. Some folks found it very hard to pray for George W. Bush and Richard Cheney as they professed to be brothers in Christ, and some folks find it very hard to pray for Barack Obama as he professes the same. And in any given church deliberation more and more progressives and conservatives draw lines in the sand, with no allowances that God might even conceivably be present with the other “side”. These are just some of the challenges within Christianity. How much more are we encouraged by our culture and our own privilege to demonize the poor, the uneducated, the different, the refugee, the “uncivilized”, even as our delicate sensibilities call us to resent or distrust God on their behalf. Like the elder brother with his father, we often feel that we have worked very hard as good people, and have very little to show for it, or that what we have may be taken away. We feel more and more uncertain of our place in an entangled and globalized world. Climate changes and the decisions of others who we may not even know affects us and those around us in frightening ways. The complexities of our lives make us complicit in wrongdoing without our knowledge or consent. How can we be reconciled to God, who insists on love toward that which so deserves punishment?

In any relationship, there are times when one party has a grievance against the other, a big one or a small one. That is not the problem; the problem arises when the aggrieved party does not talk about the grievance with the other party. This then becomes a problem for both; as the Psalmist says, “when I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all the day long”. As with sins we have committed, so with sins we feel are committed against us. If we do not express our grievances, they fester, and turn to distrust and resentment. The problem is then compounded when the other party may not realize there is a problem. The elder brother at least expressed his resentment and distrust toward his father. The father then had an opportunity to respond. And he clearly stated his affection and plans: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” The reason the father celebrates, and pleads for the elder brother’s celebration, is that the younger brother has come back, come back not just from dissolute choices, but from his own death and being lost to his family, the true evil of his choices. In his response toward the elder brother’s grievance, the father invites the elder brother also to “come to himself”: to realize and claim for himself his own place as his father’s son and only heir, and to rest in that true identity. Maybe to claim it to the extent that he could just take a goat and celebrate with his friends, and not work all the time. Maybe to claim it to the extent that he could join the party for his brother, back from the dead to be a son and brother again in a different way, but a son and a brother nonetheless.

Be reconciled to God. The same principle of openness applies to our relationship with God. Part of the invitation of Lent is to examine our grievances toward God, to examine the sins we feel have been committed against us through the choices of God as well as the choices of others. This is for our benefit, so that we know the grievances that we carry and so that the grievances do not fester. It is also for God’s benefit, so to speak: we may feel that God already knows, indeed must know, what our grievances are, but to express them is to give God a chance to respond and to work with us to make things right.

So what does all this have to do with atonement? One of the preachers in my home
church used to say that the meaning of “atonement” was “at-one-ment”; the same word but hyphenated – at-one-ment; that in that great mystery of atonement/at-one-ment God became truly one with us, and we are invited to be truly one with God, in all the complexities and complicities of our lives. Indeed, Paul exhorts us to be reconciled to God “on behalf of Christ”, for Christ’s sake, for the sake of the one who was both God and Human, for the sake of the one who “was made to be sin who knew no sin.” for our sake, for the sake of the one who from the very incarnation in our humanity and human life is “God With Us.” While the mystery of at-one-ment finds its expression in all of Jesus’ birth, life and ministry, it finds its fullest expression in Jesus’ crucifixion. Crucifixion is a nice word for what it really was: Jesus’ execution — by the state through injustice and torture and by the collusion of religion with political expediency and evil. The experience of crucifixion is the answer of God With Us. It is God’s answer in love and solidarity in suffering. It is God’s answer to our resentment, dist
rust, and fear of uncertainty. This is how much God loves us. This is how much God wants to be at one with us, even to our death in suffering and injustice. In the crucifixion together through Jesus Christ we may experience the worst that sin as evil has to offer, but we do not have to give in to it, we do not have to become it or retaliate in kind; we can keep the faith that evil does not have the last word, that same faith in which Jesus himself, even on the cross, knew himself reconciled to God.

Be reconciled to God. We do not know the end of the story of the Prodigal Son and the Elder Brother. But we do know the end of the story of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. He did indeed die. But evil did not have the last word. There was instead Resurrection and Pentecost and the birth of the Church (which while often oblivious and coopted and aggravating by its own choice is for all its faults still on a good day the Body of Christ) and there is our ongoing sanctification in the work of the Holy Spirit. But these are sermons for other days. For today, we have the possibility and promise of our identity precisely as we are Christians, those who have accepted the love of God With Us and love God in return, as we do indeed work to serve the good: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.”

One of my mentors in the ministry of reconciliation says that “you have to give people a way back in.” Jesus told the story of the Prodigal Son and the Elder Brother in response to people who grumbled about the tax collectors and sinners who came to listen to Jesus, and grumbled about Jesus when he welcomed them and ate with them. The grumblers too were good people, religious people, who worked very hard for God, who also were challenged by the choices of God and by the choices of others. Jesus offered the story to give them a way back in, to recognize themselves in both the Prodigal Son and in the elder brother. If we are honest, as we are called to be in Lent, we too will recognize ourselves in both. As good as we may be, we are in no way perfect, in our own choices and in our judgments of the choices of others. Part of the recognition of the grievances we have with others is the recognition of the ways we may also be implicated in those grievances. To deny others a way back in is to deny it to ourselves as well.

In the mystery and paradox of atonement, God offers us a way back in to relationship, through our sin that separates us from God. God also asks us to give God a way back in through our resentment and distrust and fear of uncertainty. If we take the way back in, if we give the way back in, there is a new creation. We are no longer caught up in resentment, distrust, and the fear of uncertainty. We are reconciled to God, at one with God, able to claim our true identity as beloved and at home wherever we are, whatever happens. We also are entrusted, entrusted, God trusts us with the ministry of reconciliation for others, even those whose choices we may find challenging. We are trusted to offer others a way back in to reconciliation with God, with others, and with themselves. When we accept and offer reconciliation for ourselves with God, and accept and offer reconciliation to others, we go a long way toward the elimination of resentment, distrust, and fear of uncertainty for everyone. We go a long way toward helping to continue to create that new creation for ourselves and for the world.
Be reconciled to God. From both God’s point of view and from our own, it is love that makes reconciliation possible. May we accept our own at-one-ment, and offer at-one-ment to others, with joy and thanksgiving.


~Rev. Victoria Hart Gaskell, OSL

March 7

Approaching Atonement

By Marsh Chapel

Regarding Atonement, tone matters.

It is the tone in atonement that matters most. The hue. The fragrance. The touch. Without tone, love is lost, and atonement is love.

Both our Psalm and our Gospel tell us so.

Psalm 63:

Like the 23rd Psalm, Psalm 63: 1-8 is about faith, confident trust in God. The characteristic forms of lament are also present here. In this psalm, though, the words are spoken to God, not about God. Here we may find a helpful correction for some of our current spiritual life. This Psalm should put a little steady 4/4 rhythm into our willingness to talk to God. God is righteous, just, merciful, faithful…and gracious, we affirm. So, as this Psalm encourages us, we may find courage to lift our heartfelt prayers directly to God, to speak from the heart. It is healthy so to do. One college sophomore, recently considering the early choices about studies and majors that loom with later and larger consequences, said, in full and honest confession: “it’s scary, its scary to think hard about your future”. It is a brave person who will honestly admit and lament some fear, as this Psalm encourages us to do.

This matter of thirst both unites and complicates our poem. Like a fugue appearing and disappearing, the song of Psalm 63 names a “thirst” that will not be slaked by anything other than Ultimate Reality. Now some of this thirsty confusion may be due to a long observed confusion in the order of verses. Following H Gunkel, many commentators to the present day have arranged the verses to the order of 1,2,6,7,8,4,5,3 (e.g. I B, vol.4, 327). Yet the exact ordering of the psalm has little full influence on its interpretation. The verses hold together, whether in the inherited order or in the edited improvement, guided by a desire for lasting meaning. Once during a continuing education session at the local Veterans’ Hospital each staff person was asked to give a single word description of what he or she brought to the work of the hospital. What the nurses, technicians, physicians and administrators said, in a single word, has not been recalled. The chaplain’s word, though, stands out in memory: “meaning”. Her presence brings meaning to those singing in lament.

One formal feature of this set of verses deserves some remark. Like a repetitive staccato interruption, there is a physical praise at work in this song, a praise that employs “lips”(3), “hands”(4), “mouth” (5). The praise of God is a physical act. It is healthy so to do. Praise involves presence. A pastor once went for his physical exam to the office of a backsliding parishioner. Said the doctor: “Why do you worry so much about numbers—worship attendance, giving totals, numbers of members? I don’t need to be a part of the numbers game to be faithful.” Replied the minister: “oh, for the same reason you worry so much about numbers—blood pressure, cholesterol count, even the dreaded weight scale. The body craves health—true of your body and true of the Body of Christ”. In Psalm 63 there is a physical interest at work. There is also an awareness of physical intimacy here that is startling: “upon my bed…in the watches of the night”. Our psalm lifts a physical, even intimate, grace note that surprises and disturbs, and sets us on a course of healing. The poet has found that there is some “help” here. A choral swell lifts the end of the song: “because thy steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise thee” (v.3).

The tone, in atonement, is love. Love so amazing, so divine

Luke 13:

Here whatever events occurred in Jesus’ time are now lost. The soprano voice of Jesus in history is barely audible. Clearly, for the first churches, though, the matter of repentance was crucial. The alto harmony (the inner line voice in the choral harmony of the early church) breathes repentance. Then, in good tenor fashion, Luke connects repentance to experience. The experiences of political terrorism (Pilate and Galilean blood) and natural accidents (gravity and falling towers) we know as well as they did. The experience of fruitless labor we also know. We know too about injustice unaddressed leading to suffering. Through the centuries, the church’s bass voice has carried forward the intersection of experience and repentance. It is this humbling, quieting mode, tone, which the church has to offer to a post-church world.

To the question “Why?” I have no answer for you. But the good news is that you have an answer for me. And if you think I do not see it you are mistaken. And if you think I do not appreciate or admire it you are mistaken. And if you think I do not respect it you are mistaken. You live your answer by choosing the cruciform path of faith. You meet evil with honesty, grief with grace, failure with faith, and death with dignity. You carry yourselves in belief. And in humility. Maybe a story will remind us…

Why did Jesus have to suffer and die? In Christian history, there have been multiple answers. One is that God sent Jesus to die on the cross to atone for the sin or sins of the world. A righteous God holds sinners accountable and sends Jesus to suffer and die to satisfy\appease God’s judgment upon sinners. This atones for human sin and believing sinners go free. For me, such a view seems to suggest that God is behind and wills awful brutality.

Another view is that Jesus died the way he did because he lived the way he did. His uncompromising compassion and the integrity of his
love challenged others. Threatened religious and political authorities then combined to put him to death. Where is God in all of this?

Some people came to see God’s love at work in Jesus’ love, a love willing to go to the cross to show the depth of its integrity. God does not cause Jesus’ terrifying crucifixion, but God can use it to show that nothing in life or death or anything else in all creation can separate us from such love, including crucifixion. God’s raising Jesus from the dead is God’s imprimatur on such love. (Paul Hammer)

It is important to use the right tone when speaking of the atonement…

You remember that it is not the passion of Christ that defines the Person of Christ, but the Person that defines the passion. You remember that it is not the suffering that bears the meaning, but the meaning that bears the suffering…that it is not the cross that carries the love but the love that carries the cross…that it is not crucifixion that encompasses salvation, but salvation that encompasses even the tragedy of crucifixion… and that it is not the long sentence of Lent, with all its phrases, dependent clauses and semi-colons that completes the gospel, but it is the punctuation to come, the last mark of the season, whether it be the exclamation point of Peter, the full stop period of Paul or the question mark of Mary—Easter defines Holy Week, and not the other way around. Love defines death, and not the other way around. Oh, we want to be clear, now: the resurrection follows but not replace the cross, for sure. Still, it is also true that the cross precedes but does not overshadow the resurrection. It is Life, it is Love, it is Good Who has the last word.

~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,

Dean of Marsh Chapel