The Brothers Grimm told a story about a merchant who had done good business at the fair; he had sold his wares, and filled his bag with gold and silver. Then he set out at once on his journey home, because he wanted to be in his own house before night came.
At noon he rested in a town. When he wanted to go on, the stable boy brought his horse, saying: "Sir, a nail is failing in the of your horse’s left hind foot. Should I take it to be fixed?”
"Let it be," answered the merchant; "the shoe will stay on for the six miles I have still to go. I am in a hurry."
In the afternoon he got down at an inn and had his horse fed. The stable boy came into the room to him and said: "Sir, now the shoe on your horse's left hind foot is quite loose and failing, too. Shall I take him to the blacksmith?"
"Let it go," said the man; "the horse can very well hold out for a couple of miles more. I am in a hurry."
So the merchant rode on but before long the horse began to limp. He had not limped long before he began to stumble, and he had not stumbled long before he fell down and broke his leg. The merchant had to leave the horse where he fell, and unstrap the bag, take it on his back, and go home on foot.
"That unlucky nail," said he to himself, "has made all this trouble."
As if it was the nail’s fault! The merchant and his horse could have benefited from one simple thing - - slowing down and paying attention - - and that would have made all the difference in the world! But he just couldn’t. The merchant was too wrapped up in himself, in his schedule, in pursuing his own self-interest of getting home to his own bed that he pushed himself and his “employee” farther than he should, and in the end it all broke down.
The history of our national Labor Day, established by an act of Congress in June 1894, is, in a way, a similar story. Individual cities and states had been celebrating Labor Day as a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country for almost ten years at that point, but the federal government had been slower to get on board.
It came about in a time when work was hard work. Twelve hour days and six-day weeks were the norm. Wages were low; there were no sick days, pensions or holidays. There was certainly no unemployment insurance. The business of America was business.
During the economic depression known as the Panic of 1893, workers for the Pullman Car Co., one of the country's largest train car manufacturers, walked off their jobs when Pullman tried to cut wages and fire workers, while simultaneously raising their rent in their company-owned homes. They were joined by hundreds of thousands of workers in a nationwide walkout. In a move that some say was an attempt to appease strikers and unions, President Grover Cleveland established the federal Labor Day in June 1894. However, just a month later, facing a strike that would shut down America's railroads, President Cleveland dispatched 12,000 federal troops in on the premise that the strike interfered with the U.S. Mail. In the ensuing violence, at least 13 strikers were killed and many more were wounded.[i]
Like the horse with a faulty nail in its shoe, America’s workers could only be pushed so far before they were broken physically, financially, and spiritually and the whole system would need an over-haul.
It’s not too hard to see yet another parallel - - a parallel to our own lives. We live in a culture that glorifies busy. Think about it. When someone asks us “How have you been?” the most common answer anymore is “Busy,” and for some reason we congratulate each other for that. Busy is equated to industrious, fulfilled, and important. But what is busy doing to our lives? What is busy doing to our relationships? What is busy doing to God’s churches and God’s people?
Busy will break us. Busy will be the loose nail that nags at us until the shoe is faulty, the foot is lame, and we find ourselves broken in the ditch. The pressure to be busy seems to come from a few different places. Sometimes it comes from our own desire to feel important. Sometimes it comes out of a conscious or unconscious competitive drive. Sometimes it comes as a result of the greed of others and our own need to work, work, work to stay afloat. So sometimes it is a choice and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes we are the busy ones and sometimes we are the ones making others busy.
Well, God has something to say about being on either end. Stop. Stop being busy. Stop pushing yourself beyond your limits we hear in Exodus, and stop pushing other people beyond theirs, as the prophet Isaiah warns. God has given us the spiritual equivalent of a Labor day holiday but thanks be to God it doesn’t come around once a year; it comes around every seven days. Every seventh day, God tells us, we can stop being busy, stop working, stop making other people work on our behalf to serve our own self-interest and just rest. Rest in the Spirit of God. Rest in the creation of God. Rest in the love and presence of God, because our worth in God’s sight is not dependent on how busy we are.
We’re going to practice this together today. We’re going to practice Sabbath where I’m not busy making noise up here. You’re not busy listening and processing. Maybe Jody is the only one busy playing to accompany us, but maybe even a couple of times she can drop out and just rest, too. But let’s practice Sabbath together now, not being busy, but just letting the words of our prayers and God’s promises wash over us in prayerful song.
[i] Labor Day history information from (accessed 9/1/13 6:04 am CST)