I still think of Ellen’s bakery as a model of what church is at its best: a place of faith and hope, offering sustenance for life’s journey, physical and spiritual, with love and eternal joy sharing suffering and surprising gifts with anyone and everyone who passes through. Not for nothing perhaps is the baker woman an image of God in Godself. Both Matthew (chapter 13 verse 33, and Luke 13, verses 20-21) share this resonant metaphor of God’s work in and through us. It is reflected in so much that is good in Christian living, not least in the baking of bread, literally and metaphorically, in our homes and churches, in the many gatherings, meals, and times of hospitality we share together, and, vitally, with others. As we reflect again, today, on the theme of Jesus Christ as the Bread of Life, let us therefore give thanks for the presence of the baker woman God among us, in one another and in the hospitality we share with others…
Mary almost certainly baked much literal bread. She is best known however as the baker of an organisation called the Mothers’ Union. The beginnings of this lie back in 1876, when Mary brought together a group of women in the English parish of Old Ayrlesford near Winchester to support one another in many of the challenges of family life, marriage, motherhood and, generally, simply being a woman at that time. From the mid 1880s, the movement grew spectacularly and expanded through the Anglican Communion worldwide. Though struggling in certain respects in the richer western world in recent decades, it still has a membership of 4 million worldwide, and is particularly strong in India and Africa, and in other parts of the developing world. Indeed, as we heard yesterday at our parish Mission Café breakfast, the Mothers Union is a vital element in the growth and health of both Christian community and society as a whole in the Solomon Islands. Reflecting further on the great biblical theme of Christ as the Bread of Life, and of the Bakerwoman God, what then might Mary Sumner’s life and example have to illuminate and strengthen our lives today? There are three key things perhaps: fellowship, family, and freedom…
Firstly, fellowship. Like my friend Ellen King, Mary Sumner knew that we need to know and support one another, in order to grow in life and love. In Mary’s case, she has seen her mother suffer, a brother die at an early age, a daughter struggle with childbirth, and she knew her own challenges as a mother. As a rector’s wife, like Ellen King, she also saw the hardships of the poor. As separate individuals we can bear our trials bravely, but it is own really together that we can find genuine comfort, strength and transformation. At their best, this is what unions have been, are, and will always be. In Mary’s days, unions were almost exclusively fellowships of men. Wonderful women like the matchstick making girls of London were however beginning to form their own unions. What better then, thought Mary, than to create a union for women bearing their own struggles of home, family and motherhood? What a great example too, of the special union – the common union, or comm-union – which we find as Christians, when we share in Christ the Bread of Life.
Secondly, family. Even today, a Mothers Union lunch or tea can be a fabulous occasion. It is, as it were, literally, a living expression of sharing bread, just as every rich and loving family meal is a living expression, or sacrament, of the love of God, revealed in Jesus Chrisrt as the Bread of Life. For it is at, and around, a table of love and hospitality that troubles and good humour can be shared, relationships strengthened, and fresh joys found. Today, almost 140 years on from Mary’s first mothers’ meeting, women’s place in society has, in many places, thankfully changed. The issues we face today concerning marriage and family life have also changed, at least in some of their dimensions and complexity. Yet, not least in places where women, men and children still struggle for life itself, there is still a pressing need for organisations like the Mothers Union, through whom the challenges, strengths and hopes of family life can be shared, worked through and transformed. Our bakerwoman God continues to call us on to this task of creating the dough, leavening, baking, sharing, and enjoying, this bread of renewing family life.
Thirdly, freedom. Today, in order to support families worldwide, the Mothers Union is not just open to mothers, or even women. It also includes men, as well as women, in various stages of life and martital status: parents, grandparents, widows, single, divorced. All however are bound together with one common purpose: namely, ‘demonstrating the Christian faith in action by the transformation of communities worldwide through the nurture of the family in its many forms.’ It is concerned with a common vision of freedom for all: ‘a vision is of a world where God's love is shown through loving, respectful, and flourishing relationships.’ Mary Sumner would be amazed to see what became of her first stirrings of God’s dough. Yet her intention was always that women, especially, would, through this common vision, in a shared fellowship, play their vital part in national and international life. Bringing together women of all social classes was quite radical in her day and bringing together women, and men, of all classes, backgrounds and nations is still challenging today. Yet this is what the Mothers Union strives to do, and encourages us to do, even if we are not actual members. For, as a global movement, Mothers' Union today not only supports local churches with the prayers and activities of its branch members, but it greatly enriches our local communities through social outreach projects, such as the support our own parish branch provides to those in hospital and those going through the courts. It is also a significant international campaigning charity. Particularly concerned with the plight of women globally, its projects include literacy and development, parenting, micro finance, and campaigning for gender equality and against violence against women and human trafficking.
Who would have thought all of this would have come from one woman’s vision and actions long ago? Such is the power of God’s love working through us when we allow our baker woman God to shape and make us in God’s own image, as bread of life in Christ for the life of the world. Let me then conclude with a beautiful prayer which I offer for us all to share: a prayer by Alla Bozarth, reflecting on the biblical image of the baker woman God:
I am your living Bread.
Strong, brown, Bakerwoman God.
I am your low, soft, and being-shaped loaf.
I am your rising bread,
well-kneaded by some divine and knotty pair of knuckles,
by your warm earth-hands.
I am bread well-kneaded.
Put me in fire, Bakerwoman God, put me in your own bright fire.
I am warm, warm as you from fire.
I am white and gold, soft and hard, brown and round.
I am so warm from fire.
Break me, Bakerwoman God!
I am broken under your caring Word.
In the name of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. Amen.
Jon Inkpin, for Mary Sumner Day and Pentecost 13, 9 August 2015