The longtime Presbyterian tradition of “calling for the order of the day” is needed to return the church to its central task of “seeking God’s justice and mercy,” the Rev. Katie Geneva Cannon told an electrified crowd of more than 250 at the second of Union Presbyterian Seminary’s annual Sprunt Lectures here May 8.

Recalling attending meetings of the old Catawba Presbytery in North Carolina as a child with her parents, Cannon ― professor of Christian ethics and the first African-American woman ordained to ministry in the former United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in 1974 ― said, “Inevitably someone would stand up during the hustle and bustle and call for ‘the order of the day,’ meaning we cease and desist from whatever’s going on and return to the main matter.

“It was a signal that there’s no more time for foolishness,” she said, “so our lives become a living testimony to the Bible’s injunction to seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.”

The Sprunt Lectures and other activities related to Union Seminary’s bicentennial celebration run May 7-9. The Sprunts began in 1911 through a gift by James Sprunt of Wilmington, N.C., “to bring speakers of outstanding quality to the seminary to discuss aspects of Christian thought and work.”

Cannon, a seminal leader in the womanist and liberation theology movements, told stories outlining three lessons by which liberation theology can return the contentious Christian church to “the order of the day.”

She told of a renowned concert organist during the days of air-pump organs who was greeted by a standing ovation after concluding the first half of a concert. Greeted backstage by the black man who pumped the air to his organ, the organist demeaningly dismissed the efforts of the worker. When the organist sat down to play the second half of his concert, not a sound came from the organ ― there was no air. Realizing his failure, the organist called out the air-pumper and introduced him the adoring crowd as his partner.

“How quickly we forget!” Cannon said. “Who are the people who pump the air today? Liberation theology calls us to look around and see who is here and who is not here and why they are not. Those absences diminish our experience of the divine.”

In her second story, Cannon told of the life of Phyllis Wheatley, a slave girl brought to this country at the age of eight in 1761. Her owner’s wife taught Wheatley how to read and write using the Bible and she grew to become the first African American woman to write and publish a book. She went on to become a prolific author of spiritual texts before dying at age 31.

At age 18, Wheatley was called before a tribunal of Boston’s leaders to determine whether it was “natural” for an African American woman to read and write. “We can only speculate on the judges’ questions,” Cannon said, “but we know that her responses were adequate to prompt the judges to conclude that black women can think, reason and write and publish literature.”

The story, and the liberation theology that inspired Wheatley, “teaches that we must undergo unjust trials and tribulations when we choose to use our gifts to worship and adore Jesus Christ,” Cannon said. “As the Bible tells us, we are afflicted in every way but not crushed or driven to despair and we know we will never be forsaken or destroyed by God.”

Cannon’s third story brought her call for “the order of the day,” into the contemporary life of Union Seminary, which is celebrating its 200th anniversary in 2012.

“Critics of Phyllis Wheatley claimed her mind was deadened to the realities of slavery, that hers was merely a theology of ‘pie-in-the-sky-when-we-die,” Cannon said. “But when we look at her writings we find her work packed full of theological directives ― how would the traditions of the church been different if students, beginning in 1812, studied her interpretations of the sacred texts to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, provide shelter to the homeless and visit the prisoner?”

Wheatley, Cannon said, “demonstrated a profound understanding of the demands of the Gospel and the reality of God as the almighty cause, the supreme intelligence the incomprehensible creator and sustainer, the eternal and infinite love.”

The truth of scripture centers around God’s love, grace and endless treasures of divine mercy, Cannon said, “and yet there are more women and children living in slavery now than there were when the slaves were freed” during the Civil War.

“We must engage this question,” Cannon said. “What difference will it make in our daily lives if we pay attention to women writers of Asia, Africa, Latin America who understand accepting the grace of Christ and God’s unending love? 

“How do we teach and preach so men and women can unleash the liberating power of Scripture?” she said, “to study and live the holy texts ― focusing on that which is important and releasing those things that are not.”