System + Spirit = Success

Homily for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Ss. Peter and Paul Catholic Church
18 July 2021


Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem | Rembrandt, 1630. Rijks Museum, Amsterdam.

One of the most formative experiences of my high school years was being in marching band. For my first two years, I played trombone and then for my junior and senior seasons I was chosen to be the drum major. 

I’m sure it’s hard to picture me in the hat with the big feather and the sparkly jacket, and the big stick at the front of parades. In a former life, I actually did play Harold Hill in the Music Man, so basically just picture that. 

Being a drum major was not just something tangential to my life; for a long time, marching band and the leadership roles within were central to my life and the life of my family. My brother was the drum major for the two years right before me. 

As part of this role, I spent three summers at SmithWalbridge Clinics, a drum major camp founded in Indiana but hosted now every summer at Eastern Illinois University. The camp was founded by the parents of a marching-band-superstar named Gary Smith. For years, Gary was the director of the Marching Illini, and any fans of Illini football out there are sure to recognize his name and the work he did with the “nation’s premiere marching band.” 

So much of my own leadership philosophy came from those summers at SmithWalbridge. The camp’s motto is “System + Spirit = Success”. That phrase is so engrained in me I probably still mutter it in my sleep. I thought about having it tattooed on my arm (I didn’t). 

When an organization chooses a leader, it chooses someone whom it believes will not just uphold or believe in the values and mission of the group, but every organization knows that a huge component of success is the leader embodying the values and mission of the group; someone whose life is changed and who can serve as a living witness that what the group exists to do – whatever it is – is worthwhile and effective. 

Cultures create leaders, and leaders create cultures. And cultures are thrown into disarray for many reasons and with a strong leader, who is able to remind the participants in the culture who they are and why they exist, a group can navigate pretty much anything. 

What is, on the other hand, a sure prescription for disaster? A recipe to close a company, to shutter a non-profit, to de-unify a marching band, or to scatter a flock of sheep? When the leaders are the ones who go astray. 


The readings this weekend focus on result of bad leaders. Jeremiah is writing against the former kings of Judah and especially against the current King Zedekiah, during the time in which Jerusalem and the whole region of Judah were destroyed by Babylon and the people are taken away from their homeland and led into exile. 

This is Jeremiah chapter 23, and for the preceding 23 chapters, Jeremiah is preaching to the people, the priests, and the kings that if they do not amend their ways and do not return to the covenant which God has made with them, their city will be destroyed and they will be taken into exile. 

Jeremiah responds as nearly every prophet responded to the woes and wanderings of the people of God: what did you expect to happen? 

Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock!
You have not cared for them;
you have scattered them, and driven them away.

The Lord is our justice. 

What was the mandate of the kings and priests in Judah? If those leaders had been hired by a non-profit’s board of directors, with what mandate would those kings and priests have been entrusted? 

To eat and drink sumptuously? To have many wives all at once? To pick wars with neighboring kingdoms just to flex the muscle of their military might? 

No – of course not. But we know that these are the things those kings were engaged in. They were entrusted with keeping Judah safe, with keeping the people free from harm and, most of all, with making sure the covenant with God was kept. That was their mandate, and they abandoned it, and this abandonment had consequences. 

The Lord is our justice. 

We are living through a time where the commentary on our leadership flows tempestuously. Whether it’s our Church, the city, the state, the nation…it seems like everywhere we turn there is criticism, sometimes biting; a lack of trust; a lack of clarity about the values or mission. 

I will just say that sometimes, the criticism of leadership is unfounded or excessive. I often need to check this in my own life. I remember my first year as a priest a we cancelled the 7:30am morning Mass on Christmas Day, since the year before fewer than 50 people attended, and we got phone calls saying things like, “You ruined my Christmas.” “Thanks to you, I have to redo my Christmas routine.” “You have let me and my whole family down.” 

But – a lot of the time – criticism of leadership is legitimate. I don’t think most people regularly make mistakes amounting to a full abandonment of the mission and values of the Church, but there is always need for us as priests, and for people in lay leadership positions also, to be attentive and careful with not only what we say, but also how we say it…and to ask ourselves always: is this going to foster a real and life-changing encounter with the person of Jesus or not? OR, another question: does this statement, idea, reflection, reaction, whatever…does it reflect the fact that I myself am a convicted Christian person whose life and behavior are being sanctified even now? 

The Lord is our justice. God will not be mocked, we will reap what we sow. 

Listen to the way that Jeremiah ends his oracle: 

Behold, the days are coming when I raise up a righteous shoot to David; a king shall reign and govern wisely, he shall do what is right and just in the land.

We can say from our place in salvation history that Jeremiah was speaking about Jesus – who himself looks out at those following him with great sadness, because “they were like sheep without a shepherd.” 

LIKE sheep without a shepherd, but NOT sheep without a shepherd. The Lord is my shepherd, and there is nothing I shall want! Whether our lives, our nation, our Church, our relationships are in a place of verdant pasture and restful waters, or whether we we’re traversing the dark valley…we can be confident that the true shepherd, and ultimately the only one who can lead the flock from the darkness of sin and death into something new and free is the one who will always, always uphold his end of the bargain. 

The system, in other words, will never fail. Salvation, the promise of new life, the call to conversion, and the invitation to personal holiness will always endure. 

The spirit – the way in which that system is received and applied in our lives, and the extent to which the system is able to do its work in me, in you…well, that’s a lifelong struggle. But we can be certain that if the one’s entrusted with maintaining the system give it up and walk away, there will be no spirit. By the same token, if the spirit rejects the system so that the spirit may be “free”, say goodbye to the thing altogether.

System + spirit = success. 

In Christian terms, we might say: Jesus, you saved us; Jesus, you call us; Jesus, you promise us the hundredfold; Jesus, you invite us out of sin and death, and invite us to live for you. Conform our hearts to yours, our wills to yours, our dreams to yours, our hopes to yours. 

The Lord is our justice. We might be LIKE sheep without a shepherd, but we’re NOT sheep without a shepherd. So let’s try to listen a bit more attentively, to show up a bit more completely, a give ourselves a bit more sincerely as he begins to teach us many things. 

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