Sunday, February 19, 2017
The Seventh Sunday After Epiphany
ʻŌpūkahaʻia Sunday

I am with you, I am your God

Isaiah 41:1-10 & 2 Timothy 4:1-8

His name was ʻŌpūkahaʻia, but they called him Henry Obookiah. He died at the age of 26 on February 17, 1818, almost 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 198 years ago.

But keeping his story “in a nutshell” or “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 assassinated 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.

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. 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 on February 17, 1818 at the age of 26. 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.

Despite his deep regret, 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)

He may have also 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, page1243) 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.

In his memoir of Ōpūkahaʻia, Edwin Dwight described the final moments of his friend’s life: “The expression on his countenance was that of perfect peace. The spirit had departed – but a smile, such as none present had ever beheld – an expression of the final triumph of his soul, remained on his countenance.” (Ibid., page 103) If he was troubled by what had befallen him, Ōpūkahaʻia may finally have 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)

Will we say the same for ourselves at our life’s end – that we fought the good fight; finished the race; and kept the faith? Will we say for ourselves that we showed up, dove in and stayed at it? (“The Last Word,” Rolling Stone, Issue 1280, February 9, 2017, page 58)

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