Lewis, of course, was not a pastor. He was instead a highly regarded professor. Nevertheless, due to his mastery of public speaking, and his unapologetic faith, he was invited to preach on a number of occasions.
This particular sermon had been delivered at St Mary the Virgin in Oxford, on 22 October 1939. The Student Christian Movement had already published it in pamphlet format with the title The Christian in Danger.*
Lewis ends a lengthy 1940 letter to his brother Warnie by mentioning the request, almost as an afterthought.
Did I tell you that someone wants to include that St Mary’s sermon of mine in a collection of (save the mark**) Famous Sermons?
Famous English Sermons would be published by Thomas Nelson in London later that year. The anthology was edited by Ashley Sampson, who had asked Lewis to write his volume The Problem of Pain.
Lewis’ modest “impiety” was revealed in the rest of his announcement to his brother. He confesses to that common human fear of being upstaged by the other works in the collection.
I am divided between gratification and a fear that I shall be merely made a fool of by appearing in the same book as Bede, Latimer, Donne, Taylor etc. However, let’s hope that I shall be divided from them by some good 19th century duds!—but I grow impious.
How easy it is to relate to Lewis’ concern. As I moved from assignment to assignment during my military career, I subconsciously hoped I was relieving someone who had left room for me to excel . . . and, simultaneously, that as I left my recent assignment my performance would not be outshined by my successor.
Better, in my mind, to be proceeded and followed by 20th century duds. (Forgive me, Lord.)
I doubt C.S. Lewis and I are the only people to have shared that impious thought.
Still, recognizing the impiety is the beginning of purging it. I tried to make it a practice to pray for those who followed in my ministry wake. That they would be successful, and that the men and women entrusted to our spiritual care would be blessed by their ministries.
I must confess, though, that when my literary work has been placed in direct juxtaposition to that of others, I have not been so eager for theirs to be better received than my own contributions. Not that I wish upon anyone that they would be a dud, but merely that their eloquence not put my own humble efforts to shame.
* The sermon is found in The Weight of Glory with the title “Learning in War-Time.”
** “Save the mark” is an exclamation that connotes a sense something is unbelievable. It can even be dismissive, but that would not be the sense in which Lewis uses it here, since it is obvious he regards the request as a humbling honor.