Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwyth
Church: St Paul Lutheran
Location: Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 20 September 2020, 9:30am
The congregation was formed in 1959 and met at first in a private home. Their present building dates from 1960 and is a rather pleasant looking symmetrical structure in brick and concrete, out of which rises a slender pyramid topped by a cross. The interior continues the brick and concrete theme, with pews angled slightly in front of the altar.
They have Bible study twice each week, and matins and vespers once each week, on separate days, in addition to the Sunday eucharist. So far as I could tell (their website is a bit confusing in this regard), all events are conducted in-person as well as streamed via YouTube. I attended via YouTube today, as I am not yet ready to join mass gatherings. And boy, am I glad I did – read on!
They are located on Indian School Road, a major east-west thoroughfare, just west of 63rd Avenue. This is the Maryvale section of Phoenix, a rough-and-tumble but clean-scrubbed working-class neighborhood of primarily Hispanic ethnicity. Urban legend has it that packs of feral chihuahuas prowl the streets, chasing bicyclists and menacing pedestrians, but I’ve never witnessed any in all the times I’ve been through there. Across the street from the church is a golf course, and not far away is a gin joint with the wonderful name of the Purple Turtle, where Miss Amanda has been known to quaff a wee dram or two when she’s in the mood for slumming.
The pastor, assisted by an acolyte and a lector.
What was the name of the service?Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity: Divine Service.
How full was the building?
Hard to say, as the camera stayed focused on the altar and did not pan the congregation. I was able to see only five of the congregation in the front pews. No masks, no social distancing. At communion, however, I counted 46 who came forward to kneel at the rail, including two mothers holding babes in arms. At the end of communion, the pastor and acolyte brought the elements down into the congregation, presumably to commune the infirm, although I couldn’t tell how many of them there may have been. I’ll have a comment to make below about communion. At its highest count, the YouTube screen showed that six were watching from home, although this fluctuated as the service progressed.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Was your pew comfortable?
I saw to that.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I opened all the necessary applications on my PC and arranged the windows appropriately. Knowing that this would be a communion service, I also placed a wheat cracker on a ceramic plate and fetched a wine glass from the cupboard. (The wine – a Red Moscato – would remain in the refrigerator until the proper moment.) I kept checking to see if the live-stream had started yet – it did so three minutes before the advertised start time. The pastor, in full eucharistic vestiture, and a server in cassock and cotta (but brown shoes – at least they appeared to be leather), puttered about and lit the candles. The organist played some twiddly bits.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
After the processional hymn: ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A service leaflet in .DOCX format (!) was available for download.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
I was pleasantly distracted by how high up the candle this service was, and delighted in taking it all in. And if I saw it correctly, the pastor crossed himself the Orthodox way: forehead, breast, right shoulder, left shoulder – but only once, not three times as the Orthodox do.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
As stiff as I’ve ever seen Lutheran upper lips be. A sober, straightforward eucharistic celebration more or less in the format we are accustomed to in the West, using old-style language (lots of ‘thees’ and ‘thous’); ad orientem facing for the Word, ad populum facing for the Sacrament; and with ceremony that would make even the most Catholic of Anglo-Catholics seethe with envy. The psalm was chanted antiphonally by pastor and congregation, the pastor chanting in a lovely tenor voice. The Kyrie, Gloria, gradual, alleluia verse, sursum corda and preface, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, words of institution, post-communion prayer, and benediction and dismissal were chanted, but I did not recognize the tunes (except for the sursum corda and preface). During the Nicene Creed, all knelt at the et incarnatus est and we said that we believed in ‘one holy Christian and apostolic Church.’ Communion was done table style, as is common in Lutheran churches: people approached the rail in shifts, with the pastor ministering the bread from a ciborium and the wine from a chalice into which (I think) everyone intincted – although they could, if they wished, wait for the acolyte to come around with a tray of wee cuppies. Everyone remained at the rail until the pastor dismissed them with a blessing, after which the next shift came up. At the conclusion of communion, the pastor resumed the ad orientem position for the post-communion prayer, even moving the book from back to front (yes, he did, but I was surprised he didn't have the acolyte do it).
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 — The pastor spoke clearly. I couldn’t decide if he was reading his text or merely referring to it – he made good eye contact with the congregation but sounded awfully literary. I’m not sure I agree with everything he said, though – see the hellish bits below.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The pastor’s text was the gospel reading for the day, Matthew 6:24–34 (one cannot serve God and money). The value of a product is what one is willing to pay for it – supply and demand. But the value of the most precious things in life cannot be measured by desire. The value of human life is determined by God. What we value in life – that is our god. Is it money? The American god is the American dollar. Children are often regarded as burdens, and parents ‘plan’ to have babies if they think it financially expedient – and kill them in the womb if they think they would cost too much. But integrity, conscience, faithfulness, love – these can’t be bought or sold. Jesus said that we cannot serve two masters – it is impossible, not merely difficult. We say that we worship God the Eternal Trinity, but we worry about things money can buy. It would be better to let God do the worrying – he knows what we need better than we do, and he values our lives even if we don’t. The Bible does not say that money is evil, but that the love of money is what is evil. Money is like drinking salt water: it looks like it will quench your thirst, but it won’t. And too much of it will kill you! Nothing in this earthly life has any real lasting value. Worship of creation rather than the Creator is idolatry. Worship of money leads us to think that we earned it all – not that God has given us everything we have. ‘Seek first the kingdom of God, and all else will be given to you.’ We are safe in God’s sight. When money fails us, the Holy Spirit shows us our true wealth.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Good music, careful attention to liturgy, good preaching are what I look for in a service, and I found them (well, maybe the third disappointed me here). And of all the virtual services I have attended, this one stood out for its technical qualities. Camera placement was just right; the microphones picked up everything loud and clear.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
But I thought the pastor’s sermon skirted dangerously close to the cesspool called the prosperity gospel: if you don’t have enough material wealth, it must be because you don’t love God enough. And some of his remarks grated: ‘We didn’t emerge from some evolutionary soup – God created each of us in his image.’ ‘We reject God’s truths for modern-day lies: materialism, socialism, Darwinism.’ Really? Darwinism? And no masks, no social distancing? At communion everyone crowded elbow to elbow at the rail as if they were a conga line. And intinction in this time of pandemic? At least I don’t think anyone drank from the chalice.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The service ended with the acolyte snuffing the candles during the concluding hymn, and then taking up the cross as the altar party recessed out. After the hymn had concluded, the pastor returned to make announcements. They meant nothing to me, but I stayed on-line just to see how things would finally end.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The service had lasted almost 90 minutes, and it was time for me to get some lunch together, which I did: cream of mushroom soup followed by butterscotch pudding. (I’m saving the rest of the Red Moscato for dinner.) After lunch I put the finishing touches on my report. The pastor did invite everyone to adjourn to the parish hall for coffee, though – at which point the video feed ended abruptly. I wondered if the cameraman wanted to be first in line.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 — I had toyed with the notion of attending in person today rather than from home. In light of the congregation’s apparently ignoring social distancing, I’m glad I decided against it. But this does seem to be my kind of church, and as soon as it is safe to go out again, I’ll definitely pay them an in-person visit. One hopes, though, that the pastor will be off his prosperity gospel kick by then.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. I don’t know if the pastor’s words of institution traveled through the air to my wheat cracker on a plate and glass of wine, but it felt good to be taking communion again in this time of crisis.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
‘Money is like salt water.’