Keawala’i Congregational Church
United Church of Christ (USA)
Sixth Sunday After Epiphany
Sunday, February 13, 2011
“From the Heart”
He was around twelve years old when the war broke out. Some say he may have been as young as ten.
The young boy fled with his mother and father and an infant brother when it became clear that their village would be overrun by warriors. They concealed themselves in a cave aware that a dreadful slaughter was about to follow.
For the moment they were safe but in the days that followed they were compelled to leave the cave in search of water and food. It was then that they were surprised by a party of the warriors who had destroyed their village.
In the attempt to flee the father became separated from the young boy, his infant son and wife. It is said that the warriors began to torture them in an attempt to force his father to return. They succeeded.
“I was with them,” the young boy said of his parents, “I saw them killed.” He immediately attempted to make his escape carrying his little brother on his back. In the pursuit that followed his brother was pierced through by a dagger and killed.
The same man that killed his parents took the young boy into his own family. It is not clear why his life was spared. Some say he was not young enough to be of any trouble or old enough for others to be fearful of him. Whatever the case may have been the young boy was quoted as saying, “The same man which (sic) killed my father and mother took me to his own house. His wife was an amiable woman and very kind,” he added, “and her husband also; yet on account of his killing my parents, I did not feel contented.”
Another year or two would pass before the young boy found one of his uncles. His uncle, who was now a priest, knew him as a little boy but did not recognize him. When he told his uncle his name, his uncle wept bitterly.
It was his uncle who insisted that he not return to the man who had killed his parents. At first the man resisted but within a very short period of time he agreed to let him go.
The young boy lived with his uncle a few years and was trained by him to become a priest. While living with his uncle, he began to think about leaving for another country. At first his uncle was not willing to let him go. The tension between them had become palpable.
The young boy, now fifteen years old, had met the captain of a sailing ship and saw an opportunity to leave. So it was that a young Hawaiian boy named ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia dove into the waters of Kealakekua Bay on the island of Hawai‘i and boarded the ship Triumph that would take him to a distant land. (“Memoirs of Henry Obookiah,” Edwin Dwight, Woman’s Board of Missions for the Pacific Islands, Hawaii Conference – United Church of Christ, Kingsport Press, Kingsport, Tennessee, 1968, pages 1-8)
He would travel to China and later to the United States. In time he would learn to read and write. He took a keen interest in Christianity and whole heartedly accepted Christianity as his new found faith. It was his desire to return to Hawaiʻi to share his faith.
But it was not to be. ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia died on February 17, 1818 in Cornwall, Connecticut at the age of twenty-six. Although he was not able to return home it is said that his life and death inspired others to come.
How was it that ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia was able to overcome the horrific death of his parents and brother? Unhappy with what had had happened to him, some have said that he brooded over “the cruel events that robbed him of his family” almost to the point of suicide. (Op. cit., page xi)
As he lay dying it is said he burst out in a flood of tears. Raising his hands he said, “Oh, how I want to see Hawaii! But I think I never shall. God will do right . . . what is best.” And then he turned to one of his companions and said, “William, if you live to go home, remember me to my uncle.”
Some say his life was transformed. Whatever anger or pain he may have felt toward his uncle and especially to those who murdered his family gave way to forgiveness and healing. There was no hint of anger or resentment in his voice.
We may wonder if ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia had any occasion to read the words that come to us in our reading from The Gospel According to Matthew. We may wonder what he may have said in response to the teaching of Jesus concerning anger. Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’” (Matthew 5:21) I am certain ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia would have felt reassured that the man who murdered his parents and the person who murdered his brother would one day face God’s judgment.
I am also certain that whatever anger he may have felt against those responsible for the death of his family members and whatever anger he may have felt over his uncle’s reluctance to let him go was transformed through his faith. In a letter to a friend, he wrote: “I have reason to bless Jesus Christ, that he has wonderfully turned my feet from the path that leadeth down to endless woe. There is nothing more that I can do for him, for his great and wonderful work in the soul of such a one as I, than to be thankful for all which I now enjoy.” (Op. cit., page 69) He wrote further: “It is no matter how long or short the lives of Christians are, if their best moments are well improved, in order to meet their lovely Jesus in peace whenever they are called for.” (Ibid.)
In our reading from Matthew, Jesus enlarges our understanding regarding the prohibition against murder. He points to the ways in which the anger of revenge or punishment can lead to murder is evident in the course of living.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, Bartlett & Taylor, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2010, page 356)
Whether anger surfaces because we insult a brother or sister or we are embroiled in a legal conflict, we have an opportunity to make things right by restoring our relationships with one another through acts of reconciliation. Jesus recognizes that as human beings we do get angry. But rather than deny our anger, Jesus teaches us that we can be transformed by living as peacemakers. (Matthew 5:9)
The late Rev. Edith Wolfe, a kahu who served our churches here in Hawai‘i for many years, said that the story of ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia’s life is “a remarkable, touching, human story . . . it begins on an island in the middle of the warm Pacific and ends in the cold, cold ground of Connecticut. It starts with a bloody battle between two tribes and finishes, not many years later, with a quiet death in a country parsonage.” (Op. cit., viii)
While some may want to argue that what I am about to say is mere speculation, I will say it nevertheless. ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia had every reason to be filled with anger at those who destroyed his family. He had every reason to be consumed by despair. He had every reason to be overcome by resentment.
However, he was neither filled with anger, consumed by despair, or overcome by resentment. Instead, he would have been quick to repeat the words of our hymn – “Maika‘i e launa me ‘oe.”
When Jesus as Lord I had crowned,
My heart with this peace did abound;
In him the rich blessing I found;
Sweet peace, the gift of God’s love.
And ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia would have been quick to point out that our response to the gift of God’s love is this: The best present we ought to make to Christ, is not ‘gold and frankincense and myrrh,’ as wise men of the East did, but to give our whole hearts to him.
I began my ministry here at Keawalai Congregational Church on Sunday, February 17, 1991. It was the 173rd anniversary of ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia’s death. In a few days from now we will be commemorating the 193rd anniversary of his death.
But what matters most to me is not when he died, but how he lived. So it is that we give thanks to God for the life and witness of ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia that gave birth to the church here in Mākena and throughout every corner of Hawaiʻi nei. Amen.
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