Although long retired from the ministry he began as a circuit rider, the Rev. John Rosenberger, 96, still sees the problems of life and society in terms of sermon topics.

Rosenberger, who lives in Rockville, is ever working on his ultimate sermon, which he's filed mentally, and he revises it as new situations arise. He calls the sermon, "Merchants of Death," after a book by the same name about profit making in the munitions industry during World War II.

But Rosenberger's never-to-be-delivered sermon deals with the drug, alcohol and cigarette businesses. "My contention," Rosenberger said, "is that any institution that takes money while doing anything to harm, degrade or cause suffering to human life is a merchant of death."

With his voice rising and an accusing finger shaking in the air, Rosenberger continued, "People who make money from cigarettes, alcohol or drugs are causing bodily harm to people. And that's what I'd preach against today."

Rosenberger said he never had to preach about such things during his early career as a Methodist minister. "Life was simpler then. Problems weren't complicated like they are today.

"When I look back, I can't remember ever seeing a drunken person, you hardly ever heard of divorce and I don't remember youth getting into trouble either. People's primary problem was making a living."

To Rosenberger and his wife of 66 years, Pearl, their home is a refuge from a "bizarre" modern world. They follow their daily routine and visit with their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They don't socialize otherwise, they say.

Rosenberger remembers how he was influenced in his early years by two Episcopal ministers at his church in Mount Jackson, Va.

However, he became a member of the Methodist Church at 21 when he left home to work in a store in Harrisonburg, Va. Everyone who worked at the store was Methodist, he recalled.

After teaching at a Methodist Sunday school, Rosenberger became a lay preacher at local churches.

While attendance at theology school wasn't required then, he studied under a correspondence program with Vanderbilt University for four years, which was acceptable to the college of bishops.

Rosenberger was named a deacon in 1913, and soon afterward, he was ordained an elder with full ministry privileges. In the same year he became pastor of a small church in rural Frankford, W. Va.

With the church came a "circuit" of four other churches in the West Virginia hills, and Rosenberger spent the next 10 years visiting the churches on Sundays, usually on horseback.

"Sometimes I'd ride to three different churches," he said, "and I wouldn't get back until dark I'd ride in the rain, the snow, the sleet, it didn't matter, I just rode."

The circuit churches usually had congregations of 100 to 300 farmers. Rosenberger remembers them as "wonderful people."

He also remembers sharing a blanket with his horse as he rode and wearing his overcoat throughout services. "But I never minded it," he said, "It was just a matter of doing what you had to do. I got a lot of pleasure out of it. I like to meet people and visit them and conduct the business of the church.

"Circuit riding was fundamental to Methodism," Rosenberger said. "It was a hard life, but I don't recall that I was unhappy. I never had a problem with gas!"

Even though he was only paid $50 a month, and he and his wife had to struggle to clothe their four children the Rosenbergers have fond memories of those days.

After a decade of riding the circuit, Rosenberger served for four years as full-time pastor at another small church in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. After 13 more years as minister to several other congregations in West Virginia and Western Maryland, he transferred to Rockville United Methodist Church. He was pastor there for 12 years before retiring at 65.

"But I really wasn't finished yet," he said. "So we went to Buckeystown, Md., where I served as pastor until I got tired for good. Then we came back here to our little house by the road where the world goes by."

But Rosenberger, now the oldest member of the Baltimore conference, continued to preach, filling in for sick or vacationing ministers at Christian churches of many denominations.

The only ministering Rosenberger attempts now is performing wedding ceremonies, sometimes in his living room or garden. "I've already married children of couples I married 25 years ago," he added proudly.

As he and his wife wait for their "final appointment up there," Rosenberger said, they continue the same plain life style they've always led. Simple furniture, and mementos from other decades fill the smallrooms of their home. The still don't know what whiskey tastes like and have never smoked (except, Rosenberger admits, for an occasional cigar).

They are up at dawn, work around the house, say the devotionals together, and visit with children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Rosenberger writes flowery poetry about spring and sunshine and grows tomatoes and cabbage in his backyard. He never gardens on Sundays.

His favorite magazine is "Reader's Digest." He calls other publications "literary barrooms" because of their alcohol and cigarette ads.

The Rosenbergers sometimes spend their afternoons talking and laughing about the past "When I look back over it, I wonder how I did it," he said. "But then I think I didn't mind at all. I'd do it again." CAPTION: Picture, John Rosenberger says life was simpler when he was a circuit rider. By Lucian Perkins - The Washington Post