Sunday, February 16, 2020
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
His name was ʻŌpūkahaʻia, but they called him Henry Obookiah. He died at the age of 26 on February 17, 1818, two centuries ago in Cornwall, Connecticut.
What can we say about Ōpūkahaʻia? “In a nutshell” it may be said that he became an “eloquent writer and speaker” (Nā Hīmeni O Ka ʻEkalesia, Hawaiʻi Conference, United Church of Christ, Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, 1999, page 31); that he is said to be the first Hawaiian convert to Christianity and that he inspired the first company of American missionaries to set sail out of Boston Harbor for Hawaiʻi 200 years ago.
But keeping his story “in a nutshell” or keeping it “short and sweet” would be tantamount to “tweeting” or “texting.” His life may have been short, but it was far from “sweet.”
In the summer of 1796 when Ōpūkahaʻia was 10 years old, a messenger was sent to the powerful aliʻi nui Kamehameha calling on the warrior king to bring all of the islands of Hawaiʻi under one rule. Kamehameha made his way up the island chain from Hawaiʻi island.
After Oʻahu had fallen, he set his sights further north to Kauaʻi and Niʻihau. After a failed attempt to launch one of the largest canoe-borne invasion force ever assembled in Hawaiʻi, he received news that an opposing army had gathered in Kaʻū on the southern point of Hawaiʻi island. The advancing army was being led by Nāmekehā, the brother of the warrior prince Keoua.
Five years earlier, Keoua was sacrificed at the dedication of Puʻu Koholā Heiau in Kawaihae along the northwest coast of the island. Among those in Nāmekehā’s army was a fisherman and a farmer named Keʻau from the coastal village of Nīnole in Kaʻū.
Keʻau’s wife, Kamohoʻula, was a cousin to Kamehameha. They were the parents of two boys: an infant son and a young boy name Ōpūkahaʻia. The battle in Kaʻū would turn out to be a profound tragedy pitting family against family.
The army of Kamehameha was ordered to challenge the forces of Nāmekehāʻs army and in the ensuing battle, Ōpūkahaʻia saw his parents killed by Kamehameha’s warriors. Fleeing with his baby brother on his back, Ōpūkahaʻia stumbled and fell as a short spear struck and killed his infant brother.
It is said that he was then forced to return and to stand beside the remains of his parents. It is not clear why his life was spared that day, but it was. (The Providential Life & Heritage of Henry Obookiah, Christopher L. Cook, Paʻa Studios, Waimea, Kauaʻi, Hawaiʻi, 2015, pages xv, 1).
In the year that followed, Ōpūkahaʻia was taken and held captive in Kohala. By the fall of that year, he met his uncle, Pahua. At the time Pahua was serving as the kahuna pule or priest at Hikiau Heiau overlooking Kealakekua Bay. Pahua had found his way to Kohala during the four-month long lunar procession and celebration of the Makahiki or harvest season that required the priests to circumvent the entire island of Hawaiʻi.
Pahua made a stop in Kohala and it was then that Ōpūkahaʻia sought and received permission to return with his uncle to Kealakekua. He found some comfort in being with his uncle and serving as an apprentice at the heiau, but the trauma of the death of his parents and brother remained.
When a seal-hunting ship anchored in Kealakekua Bay, Ōpūkahaʻia saw an opportunity to begin a new life. He left his uncle’s side, dove into the bay and swam out to the ship. He was 15 years old.
The sea captain took him on board and Ōpūkahaʻia essentially became a war refugee. It would be in a place called New Haven, Connecticut that he would literally find a new haven and a new life.
Under the tutelage of Edwin Dwight, a student at Yale College and others, Ōpūkahaʻia, now 17 years old, would learn not only English but Hebrew and Greek and go on to translate portions of the Bible into Hawaiian. “In this place,” Ōpūkahaʻia would later write, “I became acquainted with many students belonging to the college. By those pious students, I was told more about God than what I had heard before.” (Ibid., page 46)
It was always his intention to return to Hawaiʻi to share his new-found faith, but he fell ill and died of typhus fever in February 1818. As he lay dying he said, “Oh! How I want to see Owhyhee! But I think I never shall. God will do right. He (sic) knows what is best.” (Ibid., page 101) Ōpūkahaʻia’s longing to return to home was not to be, but because of his longing he would go on to become a source of inspiration for the mission companies that would eventually make the long, difficult and arduous journey to Hawaiʻi.
After ʻŌpūkahaʻia died, an epitaph on his grave in the cemetery in Cornwall, Connecticut read: “His arrival in this country gave rise to the Foreign mission school, of which he was a worthy member. He was once an idolater, and was designed for a pagan priest; but the by the grace of God and by the prayers and instructions of pious friends, he became a Christian (Italics mine).
“He was eminent for piety and missionary zeal. When almost prepared to return to his native isle to preach the gospel, God took to himself. In his last sickness, he wept and prayed for Owhyhee, but was submissive. He died without fear, with a heavenly smile on his countenance and glory in his soul.”
“He was once an idolater . . . designed [to become] a pagan priest.” Those who wrote his epitaph may have thought that they were simply stating a fact. After all Pahua, his uncle, was a pagan priest at the temple at Hikiau who took ʻŌpūkahaʻia under his wings as an apprentice.
But it has always troubled me that those who wrote his epitath wanted others to first know that he was an idolater. If that simply meant he was not a Christian, it would be hard to take offense. But the history of the church is fraught with the judgements of those who would readily condemned anyone thought to be pagan. Thankfully, as a Christian, Ōpūkahaʻia appears to have been someone who did not condemn others so easily.
As he lay dying, he called one of the Hawaiian young men who was in the first mission company that set sail from Boston to his beside and said, “When you return home to Hawaiʻi, remember me to my uncle.” How can that be? Why would he say that? Did he not know other Christians would question his remark?
But there was no judgment in his voice about his uncle. All he said was, “Remember me to my uncle.” My sense is that he was saying, “When you get home to Hawaiʻi, you give my aloha to him when you see him.”
How can that be? It is because his love for Hawaiʻi was also his love for his ʻohana, for his family, for his uncle, and for the people of Hawaiʻi.
Despite his deep regret about not being able to return home, he may have found great comfort in the words which come to us from The Book of Isaiah: “Do not fear, I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you; I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” (Isaiah 41:8, 10)
If he was troubled by what had befallen him, Ōpūkahaʻia may have also found solace in the words of the Apostle Paul: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7)
ʻŌpūkahaʻia may have further found great comfort in the words of the apostle Paul who himself had become aware of his own impending death as he wrote his letter to Timothy. I believe Paul’s reward at the final day was a spur to Timothy to live a life of faithful Christian service. (Harper’s Bible Commentary, James L. Mays, General Editor, Harper & Row, Publishers, San Francisco, 1988, page 1243)
Ōpūkahaʻia was no different in that he called upon Hopu, Honoli‘i, Kanui and other Hawaiians he had come to know in New Haven to also live lives of faithful Christian service.
You may be wondering why all this talk about ʻŌpūkahaʻia in my final message to you. I must confess to you that if I start to think about the many, many, many ways we have become a part of each other’s lives over the last three decades, I would probably become incoherent, not knowing what to do with the well of emotions marked by moments of sorrow and joy, pain and healing, endings and new beginnings.
You heard it said that I began my call to serve the church on ʻŌpūkahaʻia Sunday in 1991. It seemed fitting that my leaving be on this day - ʻŌpūkahaʻia Sunday 2020.
I was born in Kealakekua and raised in Keauhou, Kona. I feel a personal connection to Ōpūkahaʻia’s life. It was at Kealakekua – the place we know as the pathway to the god who was honored at the temple at Hikiau. It was at Kealakekua that Ōpūkahaʻia found his way to New Haven and came to know the God we have come to know in Jesus Christ.
It was because of him that we are here in this place this morning. It was because of him that I have had the opportunity to serve as your pastor and teacher.
Because of ʻŌpūkahaʻia’s life and witness and our shared ministry together here at Keawalaʻi, I call on those of you for whom this church is your spiritual home to continue to also live lives of faithful Christian service in the days, weeks, months and years to come.
Aloha! A hui hou! Mālama pono!