Rev. M. Nathan Mattox is the pastor at University United Methodist Church in Tulsa. He is in connection with the OSU Wesley Foundation as a board member of the Oklahoma Conference Board of Higher Education and Ministry. He served the UCLA Wesley Foundation and as assistant chaplain at Occidental College while in seminary at Claremont School of Theology.
This was written for April 13, and since that is Maundy Thursday, I can’t help but think and write about feet washing. I like to wash my feet, but I’ve never washed another person’s feet (that I recall) as a liturgical act of worship. This is despite the fact it is one of the few customs that Jesus made abundantly clear in his last week of life he expected his disciples to carry on. There’s something “boundary crossing” about the act, and perhaps that is why he instructed us to do it.
Sensing that I’m not the only one who feels a little awkward washing feet or having my feet washed, I have for the past few years brought up the topic only to watch my worship committee look relieved when I suggest that we “update the practice” and “get to the root of the mandate to perform loving acts of service for others” in different ways. Three years ago, we had a “Maundy Thursday Car Washing” at the car wash down the street from my church. Church members washed one another’s cars, and passers by who had come expecting to wash their own car were pleasantly surprised to have my church members waving them into the bays so they could wash their cars too. The next year, we visited Pearl’s Hope, a ministry of the Oklahoma Conference which helps single women establish careers and avoid homelessness. Here, we washed the windows of the facility and all the residential cabins. “Washing” something was a good theme—it was just that feet were, perhaps, a little too personal. This year we plan to return to the car wash, providing loving acts of service without touching tentative feet.
I lamented a bit during a sermon series on the Song of Songs last summer, The Wisdom of Sensuality, that perhaps we were missing a key component of the New Commandment. I typically think of the foot washing in utilitarian terms. In the age of sandals and sandy roads, foot washing was a common and humbling task. People were likely less skittish about having their feet washed, so the tenderness of it was probably not as pronounced as it is in the modern mind. But who knows? Maybe tenderness and sensuality are intended by Jesus to be expressions of that mandate to “love one another as I have loved you.” Perhaps it’s not just about “grunt work,” but intended to be “relationship enhancing.”
I was delighted when my fiancé, unaware of these ruminations, suggested that we incorporate a foot-washing ceremony into our wedding this summer. I don’t feel awkward at all at the prospect of washing her feet—and in fact, the idea that she’ll be the first person I’ve done that to as a liturgical act of worship brings me great joy. I’ve smiled about the fact that since our wedding is taking place on a beach in Florida, the act will not only be beautiful, but practical! On a deeper level, the act is itself an expression of what I look forward to in marrying her. We have a keen sense of serving one another, and this liturgical (and practical!) act will embody the tender way we love one another in marriage.